The meeting, held in the north end of the city, drew around 150 people. Photo by Howard Solomon.

Published: July 16th, 2019

There’s ample public skepticism in Toronto about the ability of Google’s sister company Sidewalk Labs to oversee a proposed lakefront smart community that promises strong data privacy protection, if the first public meeting on the proposed draft master plan of the multi-million dollar project is a yardstick.

“Databases get hacked again and again,” complained one man at the meeting Monday night, “and nobody does anything. When I think of privacy I don’t think of Google.”

“For me it’s a hard ‘No’ from day one,” said another about the project’s plan to collect data from sensors in the community — and, he added, that’s a no even if the data is de-identified.

Even if data is anonymized, artificial intelligence software will eventually stitch pieces together to identify people, indicated a woman. Alphabet Inc., Sidewalk Lab’s parent, is into AI and quantum computing. “The idea of being de-identified will be almost impossible 24 months from now.”

On the other hand, another open house attendee, who said she was afraid of Google before the meeting, said reading Waterfront Toronto’s draft digital principles for protecting data “go a long way to alleviate my concerns.”

The meeting, held in the north end of the city, drew around 150 people, which, considering some of the hostile comments in the press from some privacy observers in the last two years, might be seen as low.

Designs from Sidewalk Labs’ initial proposal. File.

The fact that it was held far away from the lakeshore might have been a factor in the turn-out; another might have been the size of the three-volume, 1,500-page draft plan people have had to digest since it was released last month.

There were 16 independent facilitators for the four break-out groups at the meeting plus staff from Waterfront Toronto, the tri-level agency responsible for developing the entire 800-hectare waterfront property, of which the proposed Quayside smart community is only a small part.

Although some have worried in public that Waterfront Toronto is tied to a deal with Sidewalk Labs, agency spokespersons last night emphasized that it has the option of accepting all, part or none of the proposal.

And there will be a lengthy process: Monday’s meeting was the first of four that will be held over nine days. Then there will be another round of public consultations in the fall. Sidewalk will be given an opportunity to hone the draft master plan, after which it will be evaluated by Waterfront Toronto staff before being handed to the agency’s board. In short, it could be at least two years before there is a shovel in the ground.

Created in 2002 with $1.5 billion of money from the City of Toronto, the province of Ontario and the federal government for infrastructure to help to revitalize the lakeshore around the port, Waterfront Toronto already has a number of projects built including 6,000 residences.

One goal is to make it a showpiece by attracting universities and research companies interested in innovation.

The idea of the Quayside project is to show “how an innovation community can thrive on the waterfront,” Meg Davis, Waterfront Toronto’s chief development officer, told the session. Or, in the words of Kristina Verner, the agency’s vice-president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity, to “raise the bar … in terms of our innovation, our competitiveness … to bend the curve.”

Sidewalk Labs is the innovation and funding partner chosen in 2017 after a competition to build a “truly globally significant demonstration project” for creating new business models for “climate-positive communities.” Quayside also hopes to harness Toronto’s tech industry grow into global firms.

However, Sidewalk has been dogged with questions since the beginning about what kind and how much data it would collect in the community.

Matters came to a head last October when Canadian privacy expert and Sidewalk advisor Ann Cavoukian resigned. Even though Sidewalk had proposed creating a “digital trust” to oversee the rules and collection of data, Cavoukian didn’t get the assurances she wanted that data would be anonymized.

There is also the problem that Sidewalk talks in the draft master plan about the collection of “urban data,” a phrase for which there is no legal definition. In theory it means data collected from public sources — like street sensors — but it also could include personally-identifiable data.

Sidewalk wants to leave the definition and rules up to the data trust. But it also raises the possibility in the draft master plan that municipal and provincial privacy laws might have to be amended.

Which is why the public consultations are expected to raise many questions on the digital proposals alone.

In fact, Waterfront Toronto board chair Stephen Diamond has already said his agency wants more details about whether the data plans respect Waterfront Toronto’s digital governance principles.

So polite but skeptical comments at Monday’s meeting.

“In an ideal world I’d be in favour of data collection in Quayside if there were enough protections,” said a man who has worked in as an IT professional for years and refused to give his name. “But Google has a history of breaking public trust.” Government, he added, isn’t much better.

Which is why, he said in an interview later, he doesn’t have a bank account, only deals in cash and doesn’t have a smartphone.

There were people like Llana James, a doctoral student at the University of Toronto studying how artificial intelligence can be used in processing health data, who not only wants to see Alphabet’s “AI framework” but also its plans for processing data with quantum computers.

Sidewalk’s plan “has too many unanswered questions,” she said. The firm “is a business, not a builder of cities.”

One of the leaders of the breakout session on the digital proposals was Vance Lockton, formerly of the federal privacy commissioner’s office and now Waterfront Toronto’s manager of digital governance. In a post-meeting interview said more important than the turnout was the wide range of voices heard who asked challenging questions.

Meg Davis, Waterfront Toronto’s chief development officer, said in an interview that attendees she heard had “a lot of thoughtful questions … It sets the stage for the next couple of nights.”



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