Google-affiliate Sidewalk Labs’ plans for managing the personal data that could be collected in its proposed futuristic “smart city” on Toronto’s waterfront lack independent public oversight and have left the municipal government with an insufficient role, Ontario’s privacy watchdog says.
Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish released a letter on Thursday that deems Sidewalk Labs’ proposed “urban data trust” to oversee collected data “problematic,” noting it and other new entities Sidewalk envisions would not at first even be subject to Ontario’s privacy laws. He says governments need to speed up and rewrite their out-of-date privacy and data legislation to address the issues raised by smart cities.
“The digital governance proposals set out in the [Sidewalk proposal] raise several concerns, including: a lack of independent public oversight, a cumbersome mandate that overlaps with that of my office and the federal Privacy Commissioner, and an insufficient role for the City given its experience delivering municipal services in the public interest,” reads the letter, addressed to the chairman of Waterfront Toronto.
The letter comes as Waterfront Toronto – a tripartite government agency – and Sidewalk Labs officials are in talks over a series of stumbling blocks the agency’s chairman, Stephen Diamond, has raised about the long controversial project. If a deal isn’t reached by an Oct. 31 deadline, the massive plan could be scuppered.
Among the issues on the table are privacy and data issues, as well as Sidewalk Labs’ designs on a much larger area of Toronto’s waterfront than first contemplated.
In his letter, Mr. Beamish warns that Sidewalk Labs’ proposals would put fewer limits on the use of what are known as “transactional data,” such as information lifted from downloaded apps, exempting them from oversight even by Sidewalk’s proposed urban data trust.
Stricter rules would apply to “urban data” picked up from such features as street-level sensors meant to help traffic lights function better. But the privacy commissioner says this distinction could be blurred and allow, for example, an app that helps plan transit routes to become a tracking device.
Mr. Diamond said Waterfront Toronto was working on addressing many of the concerns raised by the Privacy Commissioner as it negotiates with Sidewalk Labs on whether the plan will proceed.
“The letter [from the Privacy Commissioner] does recognize that the innovation economy is something that’s important and recognizes that privacy doesn’t have to be a bar to moving forward or to the adoption of new technologies," Mr. Diamond said. "Privacy and data are important issues, but they are societal issues and they have to be dealt with whether the Sidewalk deal proceeds or not.”
Sidewalk Labs spokeswoman Keerthana Rang said the company welcomed the feedback and would comply with all existing and any future privacy policies enacted by governments: “We support the robust and healthy discussion regarding privacy, data ownership and governance that has generated from our proposal."
After Waterfront Toronto’s own panel of digital-strategy experts called the plan “frustratingly abstract” and raised various privacy concerns, Sidewalk Labs said it would produce a “digital innovation appendix” in early October to provide more details about the urban data trust and its other plans, over and above its 1,500-page master plan released in June.
But Ms. Rang said on Thursday this document would now be released Oct. 31 – provided a deal to continue is reached. She also said it would only provide new information about the provisions on which Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs have agreed. Details about the urban data trust would not be included if it has been scrapped in the talks.
Former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, who resigned from her role as a paid adviser to Sidewalk Labs a year ago after going public with her concerns over the potential for widespread surveillance, said the current privacy commissioner is right that governments, not an urban data trust as envisioned by Sidewalk, need to make the data rules.
In an interview, she echoed Mr. Beamish’s warnings that Sidewalk Labs’ current vision would still allow for some data collected to be linked to individuals: “The potential for a huge, massive invasion of privacy – they are totally underestimating that.”
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