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Will covert data collection derail ambitious ‘future city?’

Attempting to cement its place among the world’s great cities, Toronto’s ambitious Quayside project is under fire over privacy concerns.

The “smart city” being developed by Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, a company under the Alphabet Inc. umbrella, has been described as a neighbourhood being built “from the internet up.” To be spread over 12 acres on Toronto’s waterfront, which is being redeveloped in what has become the largest infrastructure project on the continent, Quayside has drawn the ire of everyone from activists to technology researchers, who cite fears of covert data gathering .

Ann Covoukian, a prominent privacy expert, resigned last month from the project because she doesn’t believe enough is being done to address residents’ privacy concerns. Initially told that any data collected would be discarded, Cavoukian subsequently learned that third parties could, and probably would, access and mine the information.

“I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance,” Cavoukian wrote in her resignation letter, reports Global News.

In an op-ed, BlackBerry CEO Jim Balsillie described Quayside as “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.”

Balsillie took particular umbrage with Waterfront Toronto, which he wrote “continues to weaponize ambiguity while making irreversible decisions that will have major negative effects on all Canadians,” before then asking, “Is this how we want our cities and the future of our country managed?”

A Waterfront Toronto board member as well as two digital advisers also resigned months ago, with yet more threatening to leave if change is not forthcoming.

Saadia Muzaffar, a leading technologist and founder of TechGirls, resigned from Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel last month because she believes it is writ large that the project’s operators are ignoring residents’ privacy concerns.

According to her resignation letter, “There is nothing innovative about city-building that disenfranchises its residents in insidious ways and robs valuable earnings out of public budgets, or commits scarce public funds to the ongoing maintenance of technology that city leadership has not even declared a need for.”

Sidewalk Labs has launched a public relations offensive to combat the bad press, but whatever ultimately becomes of Quayside may very well serve as the blueprint for more cities of its kind in the future.


by Neil Sharma

18 Nov 2018



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