Sidewalk Labs is promising it won’t control data collected in the public spaces of a “smart city” proposed for Toronto’s waterfront — and says it wants to see a public trust created to take charge of such data.
Amid a growing controversy over data collection, control and privacy, Manhattan-based Sidewalk Labs announced Monday it will be presenting proposals Thursday in Toronto aimed at quelling concerns pertaining to a proposed 12-acre development slated for a parcel of land in the Queens Quay and Parliament St. area called Quayside.
Stating that “no one has the right to own information” collected from Quayside and that it should be “freely and publicly available” Sidewalk Labs, the sister company of Google, called for the formation of an “independent civic data trust” to control the data indefinitely.
It’s not immediately clear who would sit on the governance body, or who would be responsible for pulling it together.
Critics have sounded alarm bells that so-called urban data — information collected about people in areas such as lobbies or streets near Sidewalk Labs’ mostly residential development — should be in the hands of government, rather than a large, profit-driven U.S. company.
Sidewalk Labs is already planning to use data collection in the U.S. to track things such as traffic patterns, but is anonymizing the data to protect privacy.
Concerns have been raised that the collection of data here at the Toronto development will amount to “mass surveillance” without proper safeguards in place and critics have charged that Sidewalk Labs will benefit from monetizing the data, while Torontonians who live in or pass through the development will lose their privacy.
Earlier this month, tech expert Saadia Muzaffar, a member of the digital strategy advisory panel set up to provide advice to Waterfront Toronto, which is partnering with Sidewalk Labs on the project, resigned citing concerns about the lack of safeguards in place to protect the “data and digital infrastructure” pertaining to the project.
But in its statement Monday, Sidewalk Labs said when it comes to “de-identified urban data” from Quayside, there wouldn’t be ownership of the data itself, or monetary value attached to it — everyone would have equal access.
“But value could be created when people or companies use urban data to improve city life with, say, a new navigation app, a smarter traffic light, an energy saver tool, or other digital services.”
Sidewalk Labs said in order to protect privacy, any entity proposing to collect or use urban data, including Sidewalk Labs, should first have to file a “responsible data impact assessment” with the data trust.
During this assessment process the data trust would evaluate the reason for the data collection, the parties involved, the impact of the data collection on individuals, the risks of the data collection and whether innovation will be spurred.
The trust would become the “steward of urban data collected in the physical environment,” Sidewalk Labs said.
“Existing laws on urban data do not address ownership. And urban data is only regulated when it contains personally identifiable information. Even then, these rules are often not followed in the public realm. We seek to build on them,” Sidewalk Labs said, explaining the rationale for the steps it is taking.
The company also pledged to use “open standards” for any digital infrastructure and services it provides — so anyone can plug in or compete.
Sidewalk Labs noted that none of the ideas it presented Monday are “fixed or final.”
“They are, however, consistent with our long-standing goal of setting a new standard for responsible data use that protects personal privacy and the public interest while enabling companies, researchers, innovators, governments and civic organizations to improve urban life using urban data,” the company added.
Sidewalk Labs is putting together a master plan for the Quayside project, expected sometime early next year.
Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent