Sidewalk Toronto commits to Privacy by Design principles amid citizen concerns

Responsible data use and privacy are top priorities of Sidewalk Toronto’s smart city development project in Toronto’s Quay Side community, organizers told a public gathering on Thursday night.

But developer Sidewalk Labs, a division of Google parent company Alphabet Inc., didn’t close the door entirely on selling data from the smart city project that is not personally identifiable.

Members of the Sidewalk Toronto team echoed the principles of Privacy by Design, the framework of Ryerson University’s expert in residence Ann Cavoukian. The former Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario is an adviser to the project’s privacy policy development as it works through a lengthy public consultation phase for a project that is in many ways the first smart city development of its kind. Even as Sidewalk Toronto outlined its commitments to privacy principles, members of the public expressed concerns about motivations to turn data collected from a public space into a private revenue stream.

Cavoukian’s influence on Sidewalk Toronto was evident as her internationally-adopted Privacy by Design framework was put forward as a guiding plank of a privacy policy. As the operation builds its data policy, those principles will be front and centre, says Micah Lasher, head of policy and communications at Sidewalk Labs.

“Privacy by design is a key element in our approach to privacy,” he said in an interview before the public meeting. “A lot of the framework documents are questions we’re wrestling with that we want feedback on.”

The night wasn’t “a litany of new information on our plan,” Lasher said, but about listening to the attendees. The second roundtable event that Sidewalk Toronto has hosted features a format that includes a presentation of program updates, general Q&A with the audience, and small group discussions.

Rohit Aggarwala, chief policy officer of Sidewalk Labs, presented the data use policy framework and said the question of responsible data use was a top priority. He described it as a starting to develop the right type of policies that will yield the benefits of harnessing data without the negatives. “This is very much the first cut,” he said.

The framework commits to transparency around what data Sidewalk Toronto collects and why, minimizing what it collects where possible, and to value privacy as a human right. On the topics of data stewardship and data security, the document poses more questions than it has answers. The firm plans to work with a “data trust” or a small group of advisers that will help make decisions on how data is used.

In responding to a question from the crowd about plans to monetize data, Aggarwala didn’t entirely rule out the prospect. “We won’t sell private information,” he said. “We want to use data to improve urban life. Information is one of the ways we manage dense urban areas.”

Not all data is personally identifiable data, he said. Data could go through a de-identification process if necessary so it could be put to use without revealing individual’s identities.

Sidewalk Toronto also announced that its new office space at 307 Lake Shore Blvd. East will open next month. The office will be designed to be welcoming to the public.

Old Toronto map updates

Sidewalk Labs also took the opportunity to reveal some new features on its Old Toronto map tool. Unveiled at a previous public meeting, the map allows users to discover old photos of Toronto located where they were taken. Since its launch, the map has received 2 million page views from 70,000 unique users.

A new feature unveiled last night takes aerial photos from the Centre for Geospatial Intelligence, shot every couple of years since the 1940s, and overlays them on the map of Toronto. A timeline tool allows users to travel forward and back in time.

Another feature that’s currently in beta is Toronto Transit Explorer. It offers several routes to the desired destination, comparing multiple modes of transit to show which would best.

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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