Waterfront Toronto has hired Montreal startup Element AI Inc. to help review the human-rights impact of Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs’ draft plan for a smart-city development on the shores of Lake Ontario.
Element is a prominent artificial-intelligence company and has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in venture financing, developing AI-powered tools for and consulting with businesses worldwide. It has also dabbled in using AI for ethics research: In 2018, it partnered with Amnesty International to use machine learning and data science to expose the scale of abuse women in politics and journalism face on Twitter.
The Montreal company confirmed it has been awarded the human-rights review contract, but did not comment. Waterfront Toronto spokesman Andrew Tumilty declined to comment on the human-rights review until agreements are finalized. Sidewalk also declined to comment.
A source close to Waterfront Toronto, who The Globe and Mail is not identifying because they were not authorized to discuss the contract, said legal and human-rights experts will also be involved in the review, including another organization with expertise in human-rights impact assessments.
Over the past two years, the proposed 12-acre smart-city project, called Quayside, has been a focal point for arguments about privacy and domestic innovation. The plan is for sensors in the community to collect data about urban life that would spur new technologies.
Sidewalk is the urban-planning subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet Inc., one of the world’s most prolific intellectual-property developers and data collectors. Sidewalk drew the ire of Waterfront Toronto last year when its draft master plan asked for power over a plot of land 16 times the size of what it was awarded. Sidewalk walked back its demands before a crucial Waterfront board vote in October.
Privacy is increasingly being considered a human right, including by the federal privacy commissioner; many of the project’s critics worry about the potential for loss of privacy in a community filled with cameras and sensors. Last year, The Globe reported that Sidewalk’s 2016 vision for a such a community included the ability to track and predict people’s movements and to give tiered access to services depending on the quantity of data shared.
Waterfront’s request for proposals for a preliminary human-rights assessment for Quayside, published last year, asked applicants to review Sidewalk’s draft plan in accordance with the United Nations Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights and the Declaration of Cities Coalition for Digital Rights. The tripartite agency asked bidders to help it understand Sidewalk’s plan as a whole, and the individual technologies it proposed.
Those technologies would include self-driving waste bins that would connect to a centralized freight-and-waste system, and energy-efficient systems to monitor buildings.
In April, 2019, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has taken legal action in an attempt to block the project, citing concerns including “unlawful surveillance” – which CCLA executive director Michael Bryant said is his organization’s biggest human-rights concern, particularly if police could get Quayside footage or data.
The CCLA is also concerned that Waterfront does not have the jurisdiction to take on such a data-centric project. “Procuring a third party to try to give Waterfront Toronto the credibility and confidence it doesn’t have speaks to their lack of jurisdiction,” Mr. Bryant said.
Thorben Wieditz, one of the organizers of Block Sidewalk, the project’s most vocal opponent, said “the fact that Waterfront Toronto’s messy project even necessitates a human rights impact analysis speaks volumes. … Toronto needs good jobs and affordable housing, not Google HQ or sidewalks laced with sensors.”