Google affiliate’s urban development plans for Toronto raise fears of data misuse and ownership

A collaboration between Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs and government agency Waterfront Toronto to develop an area of Toronto has come under fire

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2018, 10:02pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2018, 10:02pm


Heated streets will melt ice and snow on contact. Sensors will monitor traffic and protect pedestrians. Driverless shuttles will carry people to their doors.

A unit of Google’s parent company Alphabet is proposing to turn a rundown part of Toronto’s waterfront into what may be the most wired community in history – to “fundamentally refine what urban life can be”.

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Sidewalk Labs has partnered with a government agency known as Waterfront Toronto with plans to erect mid-rise flats, offices, shops and a school on a 12-acre (4.9-hectare) site – a first step towards what it hopes will eventually be a 800-acre (325-hectare) development.

High-level interest is clear: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Alphabet’s then executive chairman

Eric Schmidt appeared together to announce the plan last October.

But some Canadians are rethinking the privacy implications of giving one of the most data-hungry companies on the planet the means to wire up everything from street lights to pavement. And some want the public to get a cut of the revenue from products developed using Canada’s largest city as an urban laboratory.

“The Waterfront Toronto executives and board are too dumb to realise they are getting played,” says former BlackBerry chief executive Jim Balsillie, a smartphone pioneer considered a national hero who also says the federal government is pushing the board to approve it.

“Google knew what they wanted. And the politicians wanted a PR splash and the Waterfront board didn’t know what they are doing. And the citizens of Toronto and Canada are going to pay the price,” Balsillie says.

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Complaints about the proposed development prompted Waterfront Toronto to redo the agreement to ensure a greater role for the official agency, which represents city, provincial and federal governments.

So far the project is still in the embryonic stage. After consultations, the developers plan to present a formal master plan early next year.

Dan Doctoroff, the chief executive of Sidewalk Labs, envisions features like pavements that light up to warn pedestrians of approaching trams. Flexible heated enclosures – described as “raincoats” for buildings – will be deployed based on weather data during Toronto’s bitter winters. Robotic waste-sorting systems will detect when a bin is full and remove it.

“Those are great uses of data that can improve the quality of life of people,’ he says. “That’s what we want to do.”

Sidewalk Labs promotional materials promise “a place that’s enhanced by digital technology and data, without giving up the privacy and security that everyone deserves.”

Doctoroff says the company isn’t looking to monetise people’s personal information in the way that Google does now with search information. He says the plan is to invent as yet undefined products and services that Sidewalk Labs can market elsewhere.

“People automatically assume because of our relationship to Alphabet and Google that they will be treated one way or another. We have never said anything” about the data issue, he says. “To be honest people should give us some time. Be patient.”

But that isn’t good enough for Julie Di Lorenzo, a prominent Toronto developer who resigned from the Waterfront Toronto board over the project. Di Lorenzo says data and what Google wants to do with it should be front and centre in the discussions. She also believes the government agency has given the Google affiliate too much power over how the project develops.

“How can [Waterfront Toronto], a corporation established by three levels of democratically elected government, have shared values with a limited, for-profit company whose premise is embedded data collection?” Di Lorenzo asks.

Di Lorenzo asks who will own the autonomous vehicles. “Is the municipality maintaining the fleet or forcing you to share your vehicle?” She also asks if people who don’t want their data collected will be allowed to live there.

The concerns have intensified following a series of privacy scandals at Facebook and Google. A recent media investigation found that many Google services on iPhones and Android devices store location-tracking data even if you use privacy settings that are supposed to turn them off.

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“It gives all of us pause,” Waterfront board chair Helen Burstyn acknowledges.

Bianca Wylie, an advocate of open government, says it remains deeply troubling that Sidewalk Labs still hasn’t said who will own the data produced by the project or how it will be monetised. Google is here to make money, she says, and Canadians should benefit from any data or products developed from it.

“We are not here to be someone’s research and development lab,” she says, “to be a loss leader for products they want to sell globally.”

Ottawa patent lawyer Natalie Raffoul says the fact that the current agreement leaves ownership of data issues for later shows that it wasn’t properly drafted and means patents derived from the data will default to Google.

“We just can’t be too trusting of corporations,” she says.

But Burstyn, the Waterfront Toronto chair, says the upcoming master plan will address data concerns. The agency wants to make Toronto a global hub of a rising new industry, she says.

“Everybody gets worried about the digital and technology aspects that might run amok,” she says. “I don’t worry about that as much as I see the opportunities for developing a really interesting, innovative community.”

Adam Vaughan, the federal lawmaker whose district includes the development, says debate about big data and urban infrastructure is coming to cities across the world and he would rather have Toronto at the forefront of the discussion.

“Google is ahead of governments globally and locally. That’s a cause for concern but it’s also an opportunity,” Vaughan says.