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David T.S. Fraser, is a Canadian privacy lawyer who is a partner with the firm of McInnes Cooper. He has a national and international practice advising corporations and individuals on matters related to Canadian privacy laws.

The discussion around Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto has been a fascinating one. As someone who has practised Canadian privacy law and been thinking about these issues for almost 20 years, these are exciting times.

Late last year, Sidewalk Labs revealed initial plans to create a new neighbourhood on the Toronto waterfront where quality of life is enhanced by technology and urban design. Shortly thereafter, I was hired by the company to help explain the nuances of Canadian privacy laws and privacy norms and help ensure that their thinking was aligned with our own notions of privacy. It makes sense: When you think about smart cities, you immediately think of collecting a huge amount of data about people. And this project can never be successful unless Torontonians see the benefits.

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The reality is very different from what’s depicted in some of the commentary. Much of the data we’ve discussed have to do with non-personal stuff: weather data, pollution data, pollen-count data, traffic counts, energy consumption, the mass of recyclables and similar measures. But the distinction – and it’s an important distinction – between the personal and non-personal readily gets lost in the discussion.

More importantly, there is a false assumption in the discussion around the project that the endgame is already set. Having worked closely with Sidewalk Labs, I can say this is far from the case.

Sidewalk’s project started as largely a blank slate that was populated by the comments and discussions that both Sidewalk and Waterfront Toronto encouraged. I’ve never seen any project, of any scale, that has sought and processed so much input and so much discussion from the community. Where we are today is the result of that discussion and input – and that is the reason it has taken so long for them to have the detailed answers that many have demanded. I have never seen a company take such an interest in the Canadian privacy milieu from the very beginning, wanting to understand it so deeply, including the cultural context in which Canadian privacy values arise. I never had any sense of Sidewalk wanting to find loopholes or squeeze themselves into any such loopholes for their own advantage.

The reality is that questions around privacy did not begin with Sidewalk Labs. Most Canadian cities are full of sensors and we have no idea what’s there, what they do and what data they collect. Each municipality that puts those sensors in place is convinced they comply with the law, but they’re not transparent and there’s little accountability. What Sidewalk is proposing is much more transparent and accountable than the Canadian norm.

Sidewalk is proposing a model that would have urban data – data that are collected in a public, urban environment – managed by an independent data trust, which decides what data can be collected, what protections are required and how data can be used. In the proposal, the data trust will use a stringent set of tools to consider privacy and community impact. Most data will be open, available to anyone who wants to use them to improve this community or their community, subject to the rules of the trust. Canadian privacy law didn’t lead to this. Community input – including from people who oppose this project – did.

While this process has been going on, a range of critics have made some premature and incorrect assumptions that this was a fait accompli, that Sidewalk Labs is looking to track people, exploit Canadian data, export the data and use them for mercenary advertising purposes. Having worked with them for nearly a year, I can say this is not the case.

As announcements are made, you’ll see that these assumptions – which are presented as fact – are incorrect. And what you’ll see are in fact just proposals, a starting point for further discussion and implementation by Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel and other entities and governments that are not under Sidewalk’s control.

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Ironically, even Sidewalk’s decision to propose distancing itself from decision-making and control of data has caused controversy; another privacy adviser to Sidewalk resigned because she couldn’t be sure that an independent data trust would require third parties to abide by the Privacy by Design policies that Sidewalk had already committed to. (The trust may decide to do so, but that is not Sidewalk’s decision to make.) The move highlighted the challenges of policy-making in such complex and uncharted territory.

But that is the opportunity inherent in what Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto are trying to do. Personally and professionally, I am proud to be involved in a project that will likely become a model for doing smart cities right. It will become a model that will be freely copied around the world, making more livable and sustainable communities. And I’m proud that we’ll do all the hard work in Canada, with vibrant debate from Torontonians, to get it right.

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