Proposed Smart City in Toronto Raises Privacy Concerns

Google’s SideWalk Labs is eyeing Toronto as part of its effort to bring so-called “Smart Cities” to North America. Privacy concerns, however, are being raised.

When people think of privacy concerns, for a lot of them, their thoughts go to devices connected to the Internet. Things like warrantless wiretapping or Facebook’s many privacy controversies might come to mind.

For some people, they look to rather low tech solutions to keep their private lives private. This includes tactics like staying off social media, insisting on using a dumb phone, or even staying off the Internet altogether. Obviously, that isn’t going to solve every privacy concern given the widespread use of credit cards, but at least it helps keep their lives private more so than others.

For a considerable amount of time, such steps can be reasonable. Good luck tracking your every movement without a smart phone. Without a web cam or microphone of any kind, are you ever going to be able to record anything going on in someone’s house? Of course, such reasonable measures to keep your private life private is becoming increasingly difficult. This is thanks to the rise of smart devices. You now have smart TVs tracking what you watch. Video game consoles track which games you play. Then there’s the concept of Smart Homes where privacy can be, well, pretty much non-existent.

The thing is, even then, while it is getting more and more difficult to choose technology that won’t track and record what you do, it’s still a personal choice that you can make. Those choices, however, may become almost completely unavailable thanks to a new movement: the rise of the smart city.

With smart cities, you have security cameras every where you go. Facial recognition software is not only tracking your every physical move outside of your house, but also utilizing artificial intelligence to figure out what to sell you.

Many people reading this might be thinking, “well, I suppose it’s possible we may one day have that, but that is such a distant thing, I don’t have to worry about it.” Well, those changes could be happening much sooner and much closer than you think.

According to the Toronto Star, Google owned Sidewalk Labs is currently proposing turning a chunk of Toronto into a so-called “smart city”. From the report:

Innovations created as part of Sidewalk Labs’ proposed high-tech neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront could go on to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Then again, Sidewalk could invest millions of its own money for an innovation that could later flop.

Who should share in these risks and rewards?

Last week, the urban innovation firm and sister company of Google unveiled its four-volume draft master plan for the $3.9-billion residential, commercial and office project on the eastern waterfront. In the document, Sidewalk says it should receive performance payments for its upfront investments in the project.

The firm also promises to share 10 per cent of the profits from successful technologies from the project with the public.

So, if you think you can simply disconnect from the Internet and enjoy not being tracked, that theory could more or less come to an end.

Naturally, it’s not just others raising questions about personal privacy with these latest moves. CNN is documenting some of these concerns:

Alphabet’s plans to develop a Toronto neighborhood could set a dangerous precedent for the future of data-driven cities, according to data governance experts.

Last month, Sidewalk Labs, the urban innovation arm of Google’s parent company Alphabet, released a 1,524-page report detailing plans for developing a portion of Toronto’s waterfront.

The report, weighing more than 14 pounds, exhaustively detailed the perks of Alphabet’s vision, including streets without traffic congestion and air pollution, as well as inventive ways of dealing with harsh weather.

But when it came to discussing the handling of people’s data, Alphabet offered only a handful of pages with few new details. Sidewalk Labs describes the creation of an independent agency to manage data collection agreements with companies and make sure the collection is beneficial for the community.

Pedestrians walking in the neighborhood shortly after it launches will likely be tracked as they walk down streets, enter certain stores and spend time in parks.

But it’s not just about the data that will be collected about any given visitor on day one. It’s the risks we don’t even know about yet, the ones that may accrue over time as data collection broadens and gets more powerful. Innovations such as self-driving cars and drones will create new ways to collect data. Businesses, including Sidewalk Labs and others, will want even more data, and it’s difficult to predict what all of the new, data-collecting innovations will be.

These concerns being raised are sparking some interesting reactions as well. According to Naked Security, Apple is, irony of all irony, erecting billboards mocking the project:

Some say that Apple’s strenuous Privacy-R-Us marketing campaign is hypocritical, but that’s not stopping it from continuing to troll Google over the issue.

In January 2019, it was the billboard it erected over Las Vegas during CES, blaring out that “what happens on your iPhone stays on your iPhone.”

The report shows images of Apple billboards saying “We’re in the business of staying out of yours”. Those billboards are being placed near Sidewalk Labs buildings. The report continues:

But that billboard was then, and this is now: Apple has a new billboard and a far more specific target. This time, the company has erected a privacy billboard at the site of a developing “smart city” called Quayside. Some are calling the neighborhood, on Toronto’s eastern waterfront, a privacy dystopia in the making. It’s going to be sensor-thick, and it’s tangled up with the uber data-collecting Google: the developer is Sidewalk Labs, which is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet

The vision for Quayside is that of a smart city built “from the internet up”. As the Atlantic reported last November, sensor-collected data will be used “to disrupt everything:” traffic congestion, healthcare, housing, zoning regulations, and greenhouse-gas emissions. From the Atlantic’s writeup:

Long before flying cars, smart sensors won’t just be in our mattresses or our bidets, they’ll be embedded in the walls of our homes and the concrete beneath our feet.

Of course, lost in all of this is the fact that there are places experimenting with the concept of a “Smart City”. In Asia, such experiments are already under way. One concern is not just that such personal information is being collected, but who has their hands on it. What if a smart city was placed into the wrong hands? At this point, as frightening as that sounds that’s not even a hypothetical question any more.

Back in May, we reported how a data leak exposed an entire smart city in China. Evidently, the so-called “City Brain” was exposed on an Elasticsearch server. The company hosting it, Alibaba, notified the owners of the database so corrective measures can take place.

As regular readers of Freezenet know, data leaks and breaches happen so often that it almost seems like we are in a data security crises. With laws like the GDPR in Europe, we’re only just starting to come up with solutions to secure this data. At the same time, it looks like data collecting is continuing to grow in sophistication at breakneck speeds.

Ideally, we can hit the pause button and start sorting out how to secure such data. With the slow pace of government, however, that’s not likely going to happen. So, it’s not unreasonable to assume that things are only going to get uglier before they get better should we continue down this course.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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