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article imageGoogle's 'Waterfront Toronto' project fields privacy concerns

By Karen Graham     Mar 24, 2018 in Technology
Toronto - Ever since a Google-affiliated company announced last year that it would be building a "smart city" on the Toronto waterfront, rumors have been swirling over what kind of tech developers were wanting to push.
The BBC is reporting that even after two public meetings held by Sidewalk Labs, a division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, in Toronto last week, people still know very little about what the company will be doing with all the user information it collects.
To understand what is going on, we need to go back a bit to May 2017. when Alphabet first applied to develop 12-acres of land in downtown Toronto in response to Waterfront Toronto's Request for Proposals (RFP). Sidewalk Labs said they would use the 12-acre plot to build a tech-centric neighborhood called Quayside.
It was also suggested by Sidewalk Labs that they wanted to make Toronto its main headquarters.
The Toronto skyline from Polson Pier.
The Toronto skyline from Polson Pier.
Digital Journal
Sidewalk Labs envisioned a "smart city" that would employ "automation, IoT sensors, and constant connectivity to create a smarter urban environment that runs more efficiently. Quayside would act as a giant demonstration of the company's aims, offering a glimpse into the city of tomorrow."
But any questions on the details of the proposal and ultimately, the approval agreement by the Toronto and Trudeau government remain clouded with a certain amount of secrecy, at least that is what Mr. Minnan-Wong, the council's representative on Waterfront Toronto's board told the BBC. He is the only elected official to actually see the legal agreement in full.
"We got very little notice. We were essentially told 'here's the agreement, the prime minister's coming to make the announcement,'" he said. "Very little time to read, very little time to absorb."
Mr. Minnan-Wong says he is legally bound to not discuss the contents of the agreement. "Do I have concerns about the content of that agreement? Yes," he said. "What is it that is being hidden, why does it have to be secret?"
Waterfront Toronto
Public meetings give few answers
In light of the huge data breach of over 50 million Facebook users, Toronto citizens turned out for two public meetings held last week by Sidewalk Labs. And while Rit Aggarwala, head of urban systems for Sidewalk Labs wanted to talk about how Quayside would tackle the challenges of urban growth, he spent the majority of his presentation downplaying the role of tech in the neighborhood his company is designing.
He explained that while digital technology was an important component of a smart city, it was but one of "many elements being considered, and less important than privacy or urban design."
“We started by asking ourselves the question… ‘What would it look like if we designed a neighborhood that put people first in the digital age?'” he told the audience. “And all of those components are important. It’s a neighborhood, and it puts people first, and it’s of and in the digital age.”
The city of Toronto.
The city of Toronto.
Sidewalk Labs business and legal executive, Alyssa Harvey Dawson said that privacy is important to the company. The company has adopted Privacy by Design as a key component of the project, developing data collection standards first and incorporating data collection into the operations second - instead of the other way around.
The BBC talked with Dan Doctoroff, the chief executive of Sidewalk Labs. He acknowledged that in the past, technology and urban planning have not always come to terms, however, he wants his team to work with the community, and that is something that has not been done.
There needs to be better communication between developers and the public. Doctoroff wants people to help decide what the city they live in looks like and his team needs to get on with this if it is to win back the trust of Toronto's inhabitants.
But even with all the news media has learned, there is still little specifically on how data will be collected and where it will be stored. It may be that no one has figured that issue out, yet.
More about sidewalk labs, digital transformation, Facebook, Data breach, smart city
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