Financial Post with Teresa Scassa 22 March 2018
Sidewalk Labs, owned by Google parent Alphabet Inc., says it will apply an “open standard” to data governance and partner with as many Canadian companies as possible as it transforms a swath of Toronto’s waterfront into a technology-driven district.
But that’s no guarantee of a level playing field in terms of data access for homegrown firms, privacy experts say.
Sidewalk Labs — selected by Waterfront Toronto last fall to help develop a 12-acre plot of land along the waterfront called Quayside — has envisioned a range of “smart city” concepts for the area, including garbage disposal robots, snow-melting sidewalks and monitored parking lots that would reduce emissions from circling cars by directing them to empty spaces. But details remain vague about how the firm will manage the vast trove of data it collects from such projects, who will profit from the information and what kind of access will be afforded Canadian firms anxious to build their own products.
“We believe in open standards,” Rit Aggarwala, Sidewalk’s head of urban systems, said at a public roundtable session held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre Tuesday night. “I’d venture to say there has never been a successful urban community that has been tied to a single technology, a single vendor, a single way of doing things. The idea that we would want to dominate or we would want to capture or we would want to enclose systems or services in a neighbourhood would be anathema.”
In a question and answer session, Aggarwala said Sidewalk had committed to identifying as many Canadian companies and entrepreneurs possible and partnering with them to the “maximum extent feasible.”
But a commitment to an “open” approach doesn’t mean all of the data collected at Quayside will be made available to other firms. Personal information will have to be made anonymous and data determined “commercially sensitive” would likely be filtered out, said Teresa Scassa, Canada research chair in information law and policy at the University of Ottawa.
“That’s a pretty big escape hatch,” she said. “So it may be that if Sidewalk makes the data open, it will just be a certain subset of data and there will be differential access. Even if there is open data, it really doesn’t solve the problem of creating a level set of opportunities for Canadian firms.”
Sidewalk officials were unable to say where the data harvested from Quayside will be housed or who will own it, noting it was still in negotiations with Waterfront Toronto on the issue. It has previously said it won’t commercialize the data or sell it to advertisers. Still, the value of the information is expected to be sizable.
“The amount of data that can be collected from cities is in the order of the internet,” said Kurtis McBride, chief executive of Kitchener, Ont.-based Miovision Technologies Corp. “It’s huge and has huge potential to help solve urban problems. If that data is being collected from public infrastructure, which it will be in this case, then I believe the public should decide how it is managed and the monetary benefit should flow back to the taxpayer.”
Aggarwala insisted that “respect for privacy” was a paramount concern for the company. Sidewalk Labs has said it won’t collect information indiscriminately but will first determine whether the data will ultimately contribute to solving specific problems such as traffic congestion, affordable housing and environmental issues.
“We’re not the kind of firm that’s going to go out and collect a lot of data and figure out how to make money off it later on,” he said.
While good to ask those questions, “it’s still reasonable to be cynical when we are in an environment where there is strong incentive to collect as much data as possible especially as new uses come along,” Scassa said, adding that commercial uses of data present only one concern when it comes to privacy. The other is determining what data collected in the public sphere should be made accessible to law enforcement and national security. Currently the threshold for these parties to gain access to data gathered from public spaces is low, she said.
“I’m not saying it should never be available to law enforcement, but we have a system that is not quite calibrated to these activities and could lead to surveillance without judicial oversight.”
Technology and privacy experts have called for more speedy development of a national data strategy that would help guide regulators and protect business and public interests as the Quayside process moves forward. But Canada’s strategy has fallen well behind those of Europe and other parts of the world, leaving it to play catch up while technological innovations race ahead, said Dan Ciuriak, a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation who specializes in data economics.
“We don’t have a good idea of how this will play out and technology is hardly going to slow down,” he said. “We’re gambling somehow that our governance measures will somehow catch up with technological capabilities.”