Adrienne Tanner is a Vancouver journalist who writes about civic affairs
For the past two weeks, I’d been fighting with a new router and kvetching about the WiFi in my place that keeps conking out. My one fix, unplugging and rebooting, wasn’t working and I was cranky. So, I was in an anti-technology mindset when I went to hear John Brodhead and Jesse Shapins, two executives from Sidewalk Labs, speak at the Vancouver Board of Trade last week.
Sidewalk Labs is an Alphabet Inc. company, a sister company of Google that doesn’t yet have a presence in Vancouver. But it is well-known in Toronto as the tech innovation and design company partnering with government representatives at Waterfront Toronto to bring high tech “smart city” development to a chunk of the city’s eastern waterfront. Mr. Brodhead, Sidewalk Labs’ policy and strategy director, and Mr. Shapins, director of public realm, were in Vancouver looking for partners.
Mr. Brodhead’s untucked plaid shirt was vaguely reminiscent of his past life as an organic egg farmer. That was back before he served as chief of staff for two federal cabinet ministers, in Indigenous Services and Infrastructure and Communities, and long before he left government to join Sidewalk. Mr. Shapins is formerly of BuzzFeed.
Their messianic pitch for the magical marriage of tech and urban planning to create greener, more equitable and efficient cities is aimed at swaying even the staunchest Big Tech skeptics. Imagine a crosswalk where motion-sensor lights adjust the lighting as pedestrians cross the street for better safety. Or commercial space in the bottom of new developments with movable walls, allowing for small affordable spaces for startups without much money. Cool right?
Sidewalk Labs needs these ambassadors because their Toronto project has come under heavy criticism. The go-ahead to develop the 12 acres of waterfront awarded in October was a much scaled-back version of Sidewalk’s original 190-acre proposal in 2017. There were, and are, deep concerns about privacy protection and it’s easy to imagine how a Google spinoff in charge of wiring up a city could raise questions about data mining. A Globe and Mail investigation in October discovered an early Sidewalk document from 2016 showing that this is exactly what some people in the company at one point had in mind. The “yellow book,” as the planning document was called, described tracking and monitoring people’s movements and rewarding community residents who agree to share more data.
Mr. Brodhead and Mr. Shapins fielded the privacy question unflinchingly and said Sidewalk welcomes the robust privacy controls that come with the Toronto approval. But their pitch comes at a time when faith in tech companies is at rock bottom. Two of my friends quit Facebook last week because they don’t trust the tech giant to prevent election rigging, rein in fake news and limit other bad data-mining behaviour. Canada is in a diplomatic morass with Chinese tech giant Huawei in part over concerns that the 5G technology the company wants to market here will be used to spy on Canadian citizens, governments and corporations.
I’m convinced my devices are already spying on me. The Google Maps traffic reports, which everyone loves, rely on knowing where the cars are. The suspicious Hawaii ads that pop up the minute you type the word Maui are not welcome, but they’re not enough to make me give up Google or social media. I can choose to simply not look.
But as much as I long for killer Wi-Fi, I’m not prepared to completely open my books to a corporation. I don’t want anyone snooping in my bank account and as far as I know, no one is. It all comes down to trust and I’d rather place mine in my government, which I hope is up to the oversight challenge.
My hesitation is shared by people with deep knowledge in this area, former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, for one. She was hired as an adviser to Sidewalk but was so afraid the project could lead to widespread public surveillance, she quit. She is now guarding the public as a privacy-protection adviser to Waterfront. This makes me think Toronto was right to go slow and that Vancouver shouldn’t rush into a Sidewalk experiment. Toronto went first; we can see how things go there and, if in a couple of years everyone is still happy, be a cautious second.