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Toronto The Canadian Civil Liberties Association calls for reset on Sidewalk Labs project

An artist's rendering of the exterior of a building is shown in this handout photo. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association is threatening litigation related to Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto's plans to a high-tech Toronto neighbourhood.

The Canadian Press

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association warned that it is weighing legal action as it called for a reset of the controversial Sidewalk Labs proposal for developing part of Toronto’s waterfront, to take into account privacy issues.

“We have not launched litigation … we thought we’d give them a chance first to respond,” said CCLA director of privacy, technology and surveillance Brenda McPhail, a signatory on an open letter on Tuesday addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Toronto Mayor John Tory.

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“Part of the reasons we issued this letter is to give the three levels of government the chance to do the right thing, on their own. To stand up for their constituents and to, you know, take control of the process in the way that they should have always been doing.”

Specifically, the CCLA says data collection being contemplated by Sidewalk Labs would be a “non-consensual, state-authorized mass capture of Canadians’ personal information” that would breach sections 2, 7 and 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. And it accuses Waterfront Toronto, the agency set up by the three levels of government to oversee development of the city’s shoreline, of ceding powers “that cannot legally be given away.”

Officially, Sidewalk is interested in a small part of the waterfront, hoping to use the space to create a “smart city” as a test-bed for urban ideas. The company, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet Inc., has also indicated a potential interest in a bigger footprint. News of this sparked a furor when it emerged last month, although the company stressed that this was a draft and no formal proposal had been made.

A source not authorized to speak publicly said on Tuesday that provincial government leaders remain seriously concerned about the scope of the Sidewalk proposal revealed last month, and keen that privacy rights be protected.

In e-mailed statements, the municipal and federal governments and Waterfront Toronto all stressed that the process remains at an early stage, and that proper approvals would have to be granted for Sidewalk Labs to pursue its goals.

“We take seriously concerns surrounding data and privacy and continue to follow this closely and work with Waterfront Toronto and the other orders of government to ensure this process takes place in an ethical and accountable fashion,” read an e-mail from the press secretary for the federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities.

A related point was raised by Sidewalk Labs itself.

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“From the beginning, Sidewalk Toronto has committed to following Canadian privacy law,” said company spokeswoman Keerthana Rang. “Moreover, we anticipate robust privacy protections that will go further than the law currently requires.”

However, Ms. McPhail warned that waiting until later to sort out the privacy issues raises the possibility that they will get lost in what she expects will be a hefty proposal, or that they will get overshadowed by more attention-getting aspects of the plan.

“We think that there’s some really fundamental issues that we don’t want to get lost amid the glitz and the glamour and, frankly, the sort of sexiness of many of these proposals,” she said.

“It’s a really big shift in the level of privacy we can expect as we move through our city, and so we really think it’s important not to get dazzled but to have a moment of calm sober reflection, and that’s really what we’re calling for from our governments.”

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