Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs’ plan to build a glistening, sensor-laden “smart city” in Toronto has experienced numerous public relations snafus and community-led resistance ever since it became public knowledge in 2017.
Now, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is suing all three levels of Canadian government—municipal, provincial, and federal—in order to put a stop to the tech giant’s designs.
According to the lawsuit, filed Tuesday in Ontario, the CCLA is seeking court orders that will nullify the agreement between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto—the municipal organization tied to the project—and prevent Waterfront Toronto from approving Sidewalk Labs’ yet-to-be-presented master plan.
The CCLA is also seeking a declaration that Waterfront Toronto, the city, the province of Ontario, and the federal government all violated Canadians’ privacy rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by dint of Waterfront Toronto entering into the project with Sidewalk Labs.
“You can argue that you consent when you put Alexa in your home or connect your electronics to your online accounts,” Michael Bryant, executive director of the CCLA, told me over the phone. “It’s another thing to say you consent when you walk from one block in Toronto to the next.”
Sidewalk Labs’ flashy proposals for the Quayside neighbourhood—pitched as being “built from the internet up”—include heated walkways and retractable “raincoats” that keep people dry, and sensors that collect data on everything from energy usage to pedestrian counts to air quality. According to Bryant, data collection raises the question of whether meaningful consent—required by Canada’s federal privacy law—can ever be obtained from people living under Sidewalk Labs’ pervasive digital gaze. The lawsuit also alleges that constant surveillance will have a chilling effect on people’s right to assemble for legitimate social purposes.
The clearest idea of how all of this data gleaned from individuals simply existing in public will be managed has come from Sidewalk Labs itself, which proposed a civic trust model last year.
When reached for comment about the CCLA lawsuit, Sidewalk Labs reiterated its data trust proposal.
"Sidewalk Labs fully supports a robust and healthy discussion regarding privacy, data ownership and governance. But this debate must be rooted in fact, not fiction and fear mongering. It’s unfortunate that once again the CCLA has chosen to mischaracterize our work and our engagement with the people of Toronto," spokesperson Keerthana Rang told me in an email. "We look forward to submitting our proposal to Waterfront Toronto and to continuing to work with Torontonians to get this right.”
A lack of confidence or clarity about how Quayside data would be protected and managed has led to a series of high-profile resignations by privacy advisers tied to both Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs itself.
In February, the public was largely blindsided—and perturbed—by Toronto Star reporting based on internal Sidewalk Labs documents that indicated the company had designs on lands beyond the 12-acre Quayside plot that are the focus of the project. Sidewalk Labs also wanted a cut of property taxes and development fees, which would normally go to the city.
All of these developments have led to a groundswell of community opposition to the project. A citizen-led campaign called #Blocksidewalk jumped into the fray in February, and will hold its first public meeting on Wednesday evening in Toronto.
When reached for comment, spokespeople for both Waterfront Toronto and federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities François Philippe-Champagne—both named in the CCLA’s lawsuit—emphasized that a final proposal for Quayside has not yet been submitted by Sidewalk Labs. “Therefore, none of the claims in the in the CCLA Application can be assessed yet,” Waterfront Toronto said in a statement.
“We take data and privacy concerns seriously and continue to follow this matter closely,” said Lama Khodr, Infrastructure Canada spokesperson, in an email.
Emphasizing the fact that a final proposal has not yet been submitted “intentionally misses the point,” Bryant said, because the CCLA argues that Waterfront Toronto didn’t have the authority to enter into the partnership in the first place, on top of arguably letting Sidewalk Labs take the lead on privacy frameworks.
“The problem is the public’s never going to know—Waterfront Toronto’s never going to know—what the commercial goals of Sidewalk Labs are, because they will hide behind intellectual property rights and revenue models that they won’t want to disclose to the public,” Bryant said.
“And that’s why you don’t ask them to set the rules. We set the rules first.”
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