Home PublicationsCommentary Alarmist Campaigns Could Kill Smart Cities Before They Start

Alarmist Campaigns Could Kill Smart Cities Before They Start

by Joshua New
Toronto Waterfront

Two years ago, North America appeared to be on its way to getting its first true smart city. The city of Toronto had partnered with Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet subsidiary, to develop Sidewalk Toronto, a 12-acre development with integrated sensor networks and other technologies in Quayside, one of the largest areas of underdeveloped urban land in North America. Unfortunately, critics were quick to imagine hypothetical privacy concerns and have recently turned up the volume, alleging a variety of risks involving the potential for inappropriate data collection and misuse. This appears to have been an effective tactic; Toronto’s executive committee announced it would conduct a comprehensive review of the Sidewalk Toronto development plan—which may portend the eventual collapse of this project.

The goals of Sidewalk Toronto are ambitious. In addition to digital infrastructure, Sidewalk Labs intends to develop Quayside with emphasis on sustainability and accessibility, as well as economic opportunity—including by building 2,500 housing units, nearly half of which would be under market value. Sidewalk Toronto has the potential to be an enormous boon to municipal agencies, which can tap into valuable data about how Quayside functions; Torontonians, who will be able to use de-identified data and benefit from data-driven municipal services; and future smart cities initiatives around the world, which can look to Sidewalk Toronto as a proof of concept.

Despite these benefits, high-profile criticism has dogged the project. Ontario’s former privacy commissioner, Ann Cavoukian, accused the project of becoming “a Smart City of Surveillance,” because Sidewalk Labs could not promise that all data collected by the development would be de-identified at the source. But this is hardly nefarious: Sidewalk Labs will follow Cavoukian’s recommendations itself and will be legally liable for any sub-contractors they grant data access to, but it cannot dictate the data governance practices of other companies.

Sidewalk Toronto just released its draft master innovation and development plan (MIDP) to resolve unanswered questions about data governance. However, it promised this plan at the end of 2018, allowing activists to seize on a perceived lack of transparency to rally opposition.

Sidewalk Toronto is a first-of-its-kind initiative, so it is understandable that Sidewalk Labs and the City of Toronto did not know the answer to every question about the project from the outset. Rit Aggarwala, Sidewalk Lab’s head of urban systems, argues that it is irresponsible to prioritize answering all questions about data governance before questions about urban design considering Sidewalk Toronto is primarily a physical infrastructure project. But privacy concerns are a powerful political motivator, and activists have been able to wield them to great effect. Because of the delayed release of the MIDP, activists opposed to the project for economic reasons have been able to frequently amplify fears about unjust data collection practices and a lack of transparency.

Activists can reliably cry “Privacy!” to garner support from people distrustful of technology companies, and then use that sentiment to make the concept of smart cities radioactive. This strategy has branded Sidewalk Labs as “controversial,” threatening the future of ambitious smart city developments. Portland just launched a pilot with Sidewalk Labs to collect anonymized mobile location data for urban planning, and has already drawn criticism from privacy activists such as the World Privacy Forum.

A similar attack against Sidewalk Toronto harps on a perceived lack of clarity about data ownership. “You could imagine a situation where resident aggregate data is being sold back to the government,” posits advocate Bianca Wylie. Sidewalk Labs then quickly published plans to create a civic data trust, which will de-identify and publish all data collected from public spaces for all to use. But the damage was already done, casting Sidewalk Labs as a bad actor rather than an actor working in good faith to figure out how to build the first-ever smart city from the ground up.

Sidewalk Toronto offers lessons for firms and municipal governments alike. Public buy-in is crucial to the success of smart cities, so they should proactively address activists’ concerns while still pursuing new development. For example, in May 2018, Sidewalk Labs published a draft version of its Responsible Data Use Policy Framework, and in October 2018, published the results of extensive public consultation about responsible data use. Toronto also is developing a citywide policy framework and data governance model to clarify questions about data ownership and use. Above all, firms developing smart city technologies should prioritize publishing data governance plans well in advance to proactively address privacy fears before they arise.

Image: Zwergelstern.

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