Sidewalk Labs has unveiled a new system of symbols the firm hopes will help people navigate data and privacy issues when it comes to dealing with technology in public places.
The Google sister firm recently launched its Digital Transparency in the Public Realm (DTPR) project, a new visual language that uses icons illustrated inside hexagons. The intention is to make the use of technology — such as sensors or surveillance cameras — in cities more transparent and understandable, Sidewalk Labs says.
The symbols “could be used in any city, any private building, any shopping mall, anywhere where digital technology is being deployed, to collect data, whether about people or not,” says Jacqueline Lu, associate director of public realm for Sidewalk Labs.
She said the purpose is to make sure people are aware and educated about how pervasive these technologies are in the world.
“Walking around, commuting, whether in Toronto, London, New York, you are being observed. There are data collection technologies that are working around you and there is no unified, no consistent way you are told about them,” said Lu, later adding that the issue of transparency and data collection is the “issue of our time.”
Although the symbols are gaining praise for providing notice of data collection, critics also argue the new system works to normalize “potentially intrusive forms of surveillance” and is no substituent for requiring and receiving consent of those whose data are being collected.
Sidewalk’s symbols include one type of hexagon that depicts the purpose of the technology — security, research, city planning, for example. Another version of the hexagons describe the business or entity responsible for the technology.
A third type of hexagon contains a QR code that individuals can scan with their smart phones, taking the individual to a digital channel where they can learn more about the technology such as when, where and for how long the data is being stored.
Sidewalk Labs says in situations where identifying information about individuals is being collected in a public space a privacy-related coloured hexagon would be displayed. A yellow icon signifies identifiable information, while blue means that any identifiable data collected follows privacy by design rules and is being de-identified before first use.
The new system, which Sidewalk says is still in the “prototype” phase, is open source and free for anyone to use.
The system could potentially be used at the 12-acre Quayside “beta site” where Sidewalk Labs wants to build a new tech-driven smart city in Toronto, but the hope is that other businesses or governments could use the symbols elsewhere, Sidewalk says.
Lu said Sidewalk’s new system of symbols is “something we thought we could contribute to the conversation to move things forward.”
The symbols were devised through a “co-creation process” where input was gathered from more than 100 participants in several cities including Toronto, London England and San Francisco.
Lu pointed to closed circuit CCTV cameras already in use all over the world. There is signage that tells you about the CCTVs, but it doesn’t necessarily tell individuals about who is collecting the images, for how long and who has access to that information.
The new symbols would address those concerns, Lu says.
But critics are expressing concerns with Sidewalk’s new symbols.
“Sidewalk Labs and its data approach is focused on entrenching the status quo of mass data collection in public spaces. They are doing this at exactly the moment when society is pushing back, globally, on the mass data collection that is already taking place,” says Bianca Wylie, a tech expert, advocate of open government, and one of the leaders of #Blocksidewalk, a group in Toronto trying to stop Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project.
The icons are “problematic in several respects, most notably in normalizing a range of novel, potentially intrusive forms of surveillance” that need public discussion and policy development before being deployed, argues Andrew Clement, professor emeritus in the faculty of information at the University of Toronto and a member of the Digital Strategy Advisory Panel advising Waterfront Toronto on Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside project.
While calling the design process used to create the symbols commendable as it was highly participative and involved a range of stakeholders, Clement says creating icons now is akin to “putting the cart before the horse.”
David Fewer, director of the Samuelson-Glushko Canadian Internet Policy and Public Interest Clinic (CIPPIC), a law and technology clinic at the University of Ottawa, adds that while the notice the symbols provide is positive, that notice is no substitute for consent.
“If you are gathering personal information you need consent. There is a bit of a struggle happening around how privacy works in public spaces … we (the CIPPIC) are pretty firm on the line that you can’t be collecting personal information without consent.”
Chelsey Colbert, a legal associate with Sidewalk Labs, admits the symbols do not address all the issues of consent around data collection, but adds “we believe (they are) a meaningful step forward” in addressing notice and transparency around the technology that currently exists in the public realm.
She went on to say there is only a legal imperative for signage dealing with the collection of personal information as per Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA).
The act says organizations covered by it “must obtain an individual’s consent when they collect, use or disclose that individual’s personal information.”
Colbert argues that because the new icon set applies to all technologies, not just the ones that collect personal information, this project goes “above and beyond” the federal act’s requirements.
Donovan Vincent is a housing reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent