Exploring Tensions Between Benefits and Consequences of Mass Data Collection and Advanced Tech 

By Olivia Cerci 

Toronto’s waterfront neighborhood may soon be filled with the sounds of construction. In this area, Sidewalk Labs, a Google-affiliate company, hopes to build a 12-acre smart city. The future does not seem so far away anymore. Perhaps it is right around the corner. Waterfront Toronto, the organization responsible for overseeing the development of the area, unanimously voted for the project to proceed. It will undergo a subsequent vote for final approval in March 2020. 

Sidewalk Labs hopes the shoreline will be “the most innovative district in the entire world,” said chief executive, Dan Doctoroff. The company will focus on increasing affordable housing, shortening construction duration, and connecting the neighborhood to mass transit. As well as installing heated pavement, self-driving “delivery-dollies,” public WiFi, and sensors to collect data and energy consumptions. 

Where does a Smart City draw the line?

Such an endeavor is extremely controversial on a local, national, and global scale. The sheer physical extent of the project creates a genuinely public space that many “thousands of people will live in; work in; eat in; shop in; travel through, with new types of building construction and tech.” Many are excited about the plethora of benefits the smart city would provide. However, others pit against it in suspicions of extreme data collection. 

The collection of health data, for example, could provide benefits to many seeking treatments. However, this could also expose medical records to undesirable sources. 

As a result of privacy concerns, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association is suing the Canadian Government to put a stop to the project. Sean McDonald, co-founder of Digital Public, said that “Sidewalk Labs fails to dig into critical issues, such as what citizens can do if they feel their data has been misused, or how the trust will remain independent and unswayed by Alphabet and Canada’s government.”

Additionally, Roger McNamee warns that “the smart city project on the Toronto waterfront is the most highly evolved version to date of… surveillance capitalism” and suggests that Google will use “algorithms to nudge human behavior” in ways to “favor its business.” 

This month, Sidewalk Labs released a 483-page Digital Innovation Appendix to address a number of concerns on data collection plans. The company pledged not to sell personal data it will collect in Toronto or use it for advertising. Also saying it would ensure every use of technology would be of “beneficial purpose.” The company has attempted to placate rising concerns on the complex and controversial project. 

Google-Gone-Wrong

Furthermore, the mass media says this endeavor is “Google-related” or “Google-driven.” However, Rit Aggarwala, Sidewalk Labs’ Head of Urban Systems, talks back to many critics. Aggarwala believes that many of the assumed ties to Google are fueling project backlash. In an interview with Smart Cities Dive, Aggarwala states that for “folks who are genuinely concerned about privacy…they’re concerned about, “what does their tie to Google mean? Does this go into the general pool of Google targeting information?” The reality is that it doesn’t. But the association with a gigantic famous company that pretty much everyone uses many times a day, it’s very hard to get people to appreciate the nuance.” 

Aggarwala continued to say that Sidewalk Labs has “a lot of Google DNA which thinks very creatively, which understands the implications of data, which sees opportunities in data…but at the same time, I think they [Google] as well as we realize how important public trust is, and the extent to which the use cases have to drive everything.”

The city boasts a high-tech community, prioritizing sustainability, safety, and affordability through innovative technology. In a world where advancing technology has taken on larger responsibilities, what exactly is there that tech can’t do? Ultimately, Sidewalk Labs hopes to “improve quality of life” and “drive urban innovation” to solve urgent problems around the world.

Toronto to the World

The controversy underlying Sidewalk Labs venture will have important ramifications for the future of data-driven hubs across the globe. PropModo states that the outcome of the project will “set the context for how other smart city projects and data-intensive PropTech efforts will address privacy in the future.”

Image Credit: https://www.citylab.com/solutions/2019/06/alphabet-sidewalk-labs-toronto-quayside-smart-city-google/592453/