Smart cities need ‘heightened awareness’ of privacy, Ontario assistant privacy commissioner says

Internet of Things (IoT) technology is a reality that cities across the world are waking up to, and the proliferation of smart city projects means that more municipalities than ever are moving forward with “technology to improve our lives” – but such projects need to include a more “heightened awareness in privacy,” Ontario assistant information and privacy commissioner David Goodis says.

In early June, during the Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA) Ontario chapter’s annual conference in Hamilton, Ont., Goodis told IT World Canada that Ontario is “moving forward on smart cities” but that the success of its projects are dependent on the cities involved being transparent and open about their intentions, which includes addressing the privacy concerns of their citizens.

“I think the public expects these issues to be dealt with appropriately…people understand and have a certain level of fear, actually, as to what these technologies are going to mean for them,” he said, adding that in his opinion governments should be heavily involved in the privacy component of building a smart city.

Goodis said that when considering smart city projects, governments need to research the publics’ concerns and have answers ready for pertinent questions like: Who owns my information? What kind of information is going to be collected? And how much of my information will be used?

A pertinent example is Sidewalk Toronto, the smart city project being designed by Google sister company Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto in Ontario’s capital. The organizations recently finalized a contentious deal that has several unanswered data privacy questions.

On Aug. 14, during a roundtable event, Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto shed more light on their plan to convert 12 acres near the city’s waterfront into a smart neighbourhood. Included are heated pavements, automated cars, and wooden skyscrapers, but no answers to questions about data ownership.

Goodis said the purpose of collecting data and what Google is trying to do could be “perfectly benign,” but that people whose data is collected “need to understand how that is going to work.”

“A lot of people talk about this, who’s going to own or control the information about me. Is it Google? Is it the city? Is it both? What happens if Google moves on and says, ‘We’re no longer interested,’ and then they’re gone and they’ve got my data and I didn’t want them to have my data?” he said.

“There’s a lot of issues around trust that need to be sorted out, and again, I think they can, but there’s a lot of work to do.”

Goodis said smart city projects are “doomed to fail” if people don’t understand what personal information is collected about them and have trust that collection is limited to that which the city needs to do its job.

Sidewalk Toronto’s developers have said in the past that they would follow the principles of Privacy by Design, the framework created by Ryerson University’s Ann Cavoukian, who was Ontario’s former Information and Privacy Commissioner.

Goodis said there were many ways a city could incorporate privacy considerations in smart city projects like getting advice on the state of the law in their municipality and identifying fundamental steps of conducting a privacy impact assessment.

Ultimately, Goodis hopes that smart city creators work with the government, and that governments in turn are honest with their citizens.

With files from Eric Emin Wood.

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Shruti Shekar
Shruti Shekar
Shruti Shekar is a video producer and reporter for IT World Canada. She was formerly a political reporter at The Hill Times and was based in Ottawa. Her beats included political culture, lobbying, telecom and technology, and the diplomatic community. She was also was the editor of The Lobby Monitor, and a reporter at The Wire Report; two trade publications that are part of The Hill Times. She received a MA in journalism from Western University and a double BA honours in communication studies and human rights from Carleton University. She was born in India, grew up mostly in Singapore and currently resides in Canada.

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