The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is “contemplating” launching court action to block the Sidewalk Labs project from moving forward.
In a letter Tuesday to the federal and Ontario governments and Toronto Mayor John Tory, the independent and non-partisan national rights group called for a “reset” of the Google sister firm’s smart city proposal eyed for Toronto’s eastern waterfront.
The civil liberties association wants the project halted until all three levels of government have established “digital data governance polices” for the “appropriate” collection, ownership, use and storage of personal information that would be obtained in the smart city.
Sidewalk Labs is partnering with Waterfront Toronto on the controversial project to create a data-driven neighbourhood that would be equipped with sensors and data collection devices intended to make life more efficient for its residents.
But all three levels of government must first legislate protections for citizens “from the risks of surveillance capitalism on our streets,” the CCLA says.
The rights group added that as a result, the right to privacy under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is being breached. Policy statutes applicable to Waterfront Toronto are also being breached, the group argues.
Sidewalk is currently working on a draft master plan for the smart city project. That and a final master plan would require approval from Waterfront Toronto.
But Waterfront Toronto, the CCLA says, is in charge of revitalizing the waterfront, not data and privacy, and the organization gave away powers to a private enterprise — Sidewalk Labs — that cannot legally be given away.
In its “digital governance proposals,” Sidewalk has pledged not to control data collected in its smart city, and is calling for, among other things, the establishment of an independent, civic data trust that would monitor the collection, use and storage of data collected at the smart city.
Leaked documents obtained by the Star last month showed that rather than a 12-acre plot of land on Queens Quay E., Sidewalk envisions developing 350 acres in the Port Lands, details sources say Ontario Premier Doug Ford and his government continue to have “serious concerns” about.
In an interview, Brenda McPhail, director of privacy, tech and surveillance for the CCLA, said the rights group wants privacy rules it’s calling for to be put in place before a final master plan is tabled by Sidewalk, and so Sidewalk should halt its work, the group says.
McPhail says the CCLA will wait to see if this happens and how the three levels of government respond to the CCLA letter before deciding whether to take next steps, which would be to commence legal action and file a notice of application in court.
Canada has a patchwork of rules and policies around data collection and privacy. Toronto city council recently adopted a motion by one of its councillors calling for the drafting of a framework of rules for civic data and smart cities that would focus on privacy, accountability, transparency and public ownership of data.
Responding to the CCLA letter, Waterfront Toronto spokesperson Andrew Tumilty said Sidewalk Labs only has permission to develop a proposal for Quayside — a 12-acre parcel of land — and that proposal will be subject to a “thorough, transparent and extensive evaluation process that will include all three levels of government, external subject matter experts, and extensive consultations with the general public.”
David Murakami Wood, Canada research chair in surveillance studies, associate professor in the department of sociology at Queen’s University, and a member of the Toronto group #Blocksidewalk, which opposes the Sidewalk project, said the CCLA letter puts into “very concrete terms” what the issues are and what’s at stake with the project.
“This is not just the privatization of public space, but the privatization of public and personal data. It’s exploitation by an American company that is largely outside of the control of law and policy in this country,” Murakami Wood added.
Mayor Tory’s spokesperson Don Peat echoed those remarks saying any final proposal from Sidewalk “will be given full public scrutiny, subject to public consultation and discussion, and, ultimately, consideration by Waterfront Toronto and city council.
“This consideration and approval process will apply to a wide range of issues including those raised in the CCLA letter,” Peat added.
Lee Greenberg, a spokesperson for Ontario Infrastructure Minister Monte McNaughton, said the province has taken “decisive action to improve oversight at Waterfront Toronto” including the recent appointment of four highly qualified board members.
The minister believes the board members, like the provincial government, will put the public at the centre of all their decisions.
“That means respect for taxpayer dollars, strong oversight and the protection of privacy,” Greenberg said in an email.
In a statement from Ottawa, Ann-Clara Vaillancourt, press secretary for the office of the minister of Infrastructure and Communities, said “no plan has yet been approved by Waterfront Toronto nor would that plan be exempted from regulation at the federal or provincial level, or the municipal approval process required by any other development.”
Vaillancourt added: “We take seriously concerns surrounding data and privacy and continue to follow this closely and work with Waterfront Toronto and the other orders of government to ensure this process takes place in an ethical and accountable fashion.”
Sidewalk spokesperson Keerthana Rang said, “this project is for Toronto and it will be up to residents, Waterfront Toronto, and all three orders of government to decide if it should go forward. We strongly disagree with the (CCLA) letter’s mischaracterization of the public process established by Waterfront Toronto, a public agency, that involves all three orders of government, as well as our work to build a neighbourhood that will significantly improve the lives of people in Toronto.
“Sidewalk Toronto has committed to following Canadian privacy law. Moreover, we anticipate robust privacy protections that will go further than the law currently requires,” Rang added.
Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent