Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto Project Stirs Up Privacy Debate

When Sidewalk Labs hosted a public forum in Toronto last November to gather feedback on its plan to build a data-driven innovation hub on a mostly derelict stretch of industrial waterfront, several participants posed tough questions about how the company, a subsidiary of Alphabet/Google, would address privacy issues—questions that have yet to be answered some three months later.

Sidewalk Labs (a Civic Hall member organization) was founded by former Bloomberg CEO and New York City deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff. The company launched its pitch in mid-October amidst an international media blitz that included promotional appearances by Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau and former Google chairman Eric Schmidt. In particular, Sidewalk proposed to develop a green, affordable, and innovation-driven mixed-use waterfront community to be built using emerging data, mapping, and network technologies, such as the deployment of public data-gathering sensors and automated shuttle buses that would serve the area instead of private vehicles. Sidewalk also pledged to invest US$50 million in pilot projects in Toronto as they negotiate a final development agreement with local agencies over the coming year.

The central premise of the firm’s plan, now being evaluated by Waterfront Toronto, is to leverage data gathered in the public realm to achieve goals such as improving traffic flow, enabling autonomous vehicle movement, and reducing emissions on a 12-acre brownfields site known as Quayside that could become home to Google Canada’s new headquarters, a cluster of tech companies, and other mixed-use buildings. Sidewalk and WT both talked initially about expanding the plan to a mostly fallow 800-acre swath of industrial Port Lands east of Quayside, but City of Toronto officials poured cold water on that goal in December.

From the beginning, SWL has cast its plan as a kind of urban digital platform that will encourage third-party tech firms to “design city improvements” using data gathered from users of this new community—a model not unlike the way Apple and Facebook encourage developers to create applications for their respective platforms.

Sidewalk is no stranger to data and privacy issues. Their first venture—through a company SWL has invested in (and shares New York office space with) called Intersection—was turning hundreds of former payphone connection points in New York into free wifi-enabled LinkNYC wayfinding kiosks, with revenues generated by advertising. In late 2016, LinkNYC had to disable the web browsers following reports that they were being used to download porn.

But concerns remain about LinkNYC’s data gathering practices. According to this analysis by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, LinkNYC’s privacy policy initially allowed them to retain significant user data and browsing histories. While they tightened up the privacy policies in 2017, EFF still has concerns about data breaches and the lack of public input into the governance of these kiosks, which will soon be outfitted with cameras and other sensors. As EFF’s post noted, “there is no means for New Yorkers to participate in decisions about how data from Link kiosks will be used, with whom it will be shared, for how long it will be retained, or whether the parameters under which it is initially collected might conceivably expand in the future.”

While the initial Toronto pitch included a data privacy pledge that included hiring Ann Cavoukian, a former high-ranking Ontario government privacy official, to advise SWL on its practices, attendees at the forum nonetheless wanted to know more about safeguards and the company’s accountability and transparency plans for its data-gathering operations.

Indeed, as SWL itself has acknowledged, a good deal of the media coverage so far has focused on issues relating to privacy, intellectual property and the ultimate ownership of data gathered from the movement of people through the public spaces on the land it aims to develop. Some of the commentary, including a widely-read report in The Guardian, raised pointed concerns about what it described as “Google Urbanism.”

While SWL’s plan is geared at Toronto, the data governance issues resonate widely. The firm’s pitch in Toronto could set precedents for how governments and public agencies elsewhere regulate these emerging technologies, including the troves of data they both consume and produce.

Increasingly, as CityLab recently reported, some public agencies are raising questions about the ownership of the data of private mobility firms—ridesharing companies in particular—whose operations have triggered growing congestion and decreased transit usage in some jurisdictions.

But several months into what was expected to be a swift year-long process to negotiate a formal development agreement, neither SWL, Waterfront Toronto, nor the company’s privacy advisor have much to offer in the way of specifics about how they plan to deal with these data governance issues.

Quayside (Photo courtesy Waterfront Toronto)

In an email response, WT chief executive Will Fleissig said that the ultimate agreement “will include provisions to ensure and enforce requirements regarding privacy considerations, as well as other critical issues relating to data governance and ownership.” Other government agencies, he added, may be involved. But Fleissig declined to say whether Cavoukian, as SWL’s paid privacy advisor, will be required to report her findings or recommendations to Waterfront Toronto.

Cavoukian, in an interview in late December, said she would be “happy” to report her eventual findings and recommendations to Waterfront Toronto, but the prospect hasn’t arisen in the handful of meetings she has had so far.

Nor has either body released the details, mandate, or membership of a pledge to establish a privacy advisory board, except to say that it will include government officials, academics, and community members. Asked if the group would meet in public and disclose its reports, Micah Lasher, a former Bloomberg administration political staffer who co-founded the lobbying powerhouse SDK Knickerbocker and now serves as Sidewalk’s spokesperson, replied by email: “We aim to make the process as transparent as possible. The Board is still in formation and its structure and protocols yet to be determined.”

Such hedges explain why some observers have questioned Sidewalk’s public positioning. Writing in Torontoist last fall, open data activist and writer Bianca Wylie posed a series of hard-hitting questions for Sidewalk about issues such as the ownership of intellectual property developed on the project, public access to the data collected, security issues, and the intended beneficiaries. “Who is the user that Sidewalks Labs is ultimately serving?” she asked. “Companies that want to learn about how people interact with physical spaces? Real estate investors? Cities?”

Cavoukian’s role, in particular, has drawn attention from Wylie and other critics who worry that her presence is more about public relations than oversight. She served for many years as the Ontario government’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, a public official who administers the province’s privacy laws, reports to the Ontario legislature, and is independent of the government of the day.

Since her retirement, Cavoukian has held a position at Ryerson University, where she heads a “privacy by design” think tank. Initially, SWL didn’t publicly acknowledge that she was being paid for her advice (her unit at Ryerson provides certification services to companies and other organizations). “I am being paid but so what?” she said in an interview in late December. “I have no vested interest in this.”

While Cavoukian will be delivering a consulting service and connecting SWL with tech firms that perform specific data-related tasks such as anonymizing large data sets, these tasks aren’t the same as providing formal oversight.

Indeed, the question of who or what will actually regulate the data-gathering envisioned by SWL remains largely unanswered.

As the head of the IPCO, Cavoukian had legal authority to investigate government or other public agencies and was insulated from interference.

She admits her current position with SWL has no such structural protections. She contends that as the former commissioner, her imprimatur not only carries weight but also puts pressure on SWL to own up to its promises. “Otherwise, there’s nothing comparable to the IPCO [mandate].” Cavoukian also concedes that there’s no way she could determine whether she was being given complete access to SWL’s data systems in order to determine whether the company is living up to its public commitment to transparency. “How would anyone prove that?”

Yet she says the eventual privacy advisory board that is established to oversee this venture should conduct its business in public. “I think that would make sense. I would imagine that those things should be made public.”

Asked if SWL would agree to allow Waterfront Toronto or city officials to seek an independent evaluation of Sidewalk’s proposed privacy policies, Lasher didn’t offer a definitive answer: “We would review any such proposal and react to its specifics, but we certainly aim to establish mechanisms that give Torontonians and their representatives in government confidence and clarity when it comes to all the work that happens as part of Sidewalk Toronto.”

This article has been updated to clarify the relationship between Sidewalk Labs and LinkNYC, and to include the fact that Sidewalk Labs is a member of Civic Hall.