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Why Does Google Want to Hand Its Smart City Data to a Third Party 'Civic Data Trust?'

Sidewalk Labs says nobody should own data collected from residents in Toronto's Quayside "smart city," but critics say the tech giant shouldn't be driving the conversation.
A photo of Toronto's downtown in the winter, showing the CN tower.
Image: Flickr/amber dawn pullin

Sidewalk Labs says it doesn’t want to own or control the data collected in a planned “smart city” on Toronto’s waterfront. The Google spinoff is proposing instead that data be controlled by an independent civic data trust.

The Quayside project will span 12 acres of Toronto and, while still in the consulting stages, is shaping up to be a sensor-laden information smorgasbord for Sidewalk Labs and any other company collecting data in the area.


Sidewalk Labs announced its data trust proposal on Monday, after months of haranguing by technology experts and the media. Earlier this month, a member of a municipal advisory panel on data usage resigned from her position over data collection and transparency concerns with the project.

Generally, data trusts are frameworks that allow an oversight board to manage and set rules around how data is accessed. According to Sidewalk Labs’ proposal, the data trust for Quayside will manage access for any company that wants to use data collected from people living in the neighbourhood. Sidewalk Labs will receive no special treatment, and companies that wants to use the data held by the trust will need to file a publicly viewable impact assessment.

Read More: Toronto Advisor Resigns Over Data Concerns with Google's Smart City Project

Sidewalk Labs doesn’t appear to be pushing a specific implementation of a civic data trust, but it points to Barcelona and Estonia as examples to follow in its proposal. In Barcelona, collected data is pooled into a central repository and access is managed by the city. In Estonia, companies store their own collected data but make it available via standardized protocols.

“There’s nothing inherently good or bad about a data trust; it’s what you do with it,” said Bianca Wylie, co-founder of advocacy group Tech Reset Canada, over the phone. “The critical point is that Sidewalk Labs should not be framing or organizing a discussion around a data trust—the parties that should be doing that are the residents and the government.”


The Sidewalk Labs proposal also argues that collected data should not have to be stored locally. Data localization is a major talking point in Canada since data that goes through the US is not protected by Canadian privacy laws and is open to snooping by US security agencies.

The recently signed USMCA trade agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the US contained provisions that severely restrict Canada’s ability to make rules around where data should be stored, possibly making the very idea that Toronto would ask that Quayside data be stored locally a non-starter.

“Given the current landscape, a data localization requirement would be challenging if not unworkable, particularly for smaller startups—and we believe there are more effective ways to ensure that data is treated in accordance with Canadian law, including through binding provisions of contracts with storage providers and technical protections,” Micah Lasher, head of policy and communications for Sidewalk Labs, told Motherboard in an emailed statement.

The company believes that such rules are “neither practical nor necessary,” Lasher said. Still, the company will explore ways to “safely and reliably” store data in Canada, Lasher said, and the issue may be revisited.

Waterfront Toronto, the municipal partner organization for the Quayside project, will offer its feedback on the proposal after Sidewalk Labs’ presentation on Thursday.

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