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Toronto Advisor Resigns Over Data Concerns with Google's Smart City Project

Sidewalk Lab's plan to redevelop a 12-acre swath of Toronto has been beset by concerns over surveillance and data handling.

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Oct 4 2018, 9:01pm

Image: Flickr/Scarleth Marie

Sidewalk Labs, a Google sister company under Alphabet’s large umbrella, is planning to redevelop a 12-acre plot of land in Toronto as a sensor-laden “smart city” that will include novel city design and, privacy and digital rights advocates worry, some new ideas for corporate surveillance too.

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The project, which is being conducted in collaboration with municipal group Waterfront Toronto, is still in the consultation stage and has faced sharp criticism for its lack of attention to data privacy issues compared to the emphasis on splashy design concepts. Now, Saadia Muzaffar—a member of Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel for the project—has resigned from her position. In a lengthy resignation letter, Muzaffar argued that the project is not taking seriously Torontonians’ concerns about how one of the biggest tech companies in the world will surveil them and handle their data.

“The most recent public roundtable in August displayed a blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital infrastructure,” Muzaffar wrote. “Time was spent instead talking about buildings made of wood and the width of one-way streets, things no one has contested or expressed material concern for in this entire process.”

“As the only person of colour on a panel that doesn’t even have Indigenous representation to my knowledge, representing public interest for a city as diverse as Toronto, I [resign] with a very heavy heart,” she continued.

Sidewalk Labs’ plan has drawn much external criticism as well—from residents, technologists, and even the business community. “The Waterfront Toronto executives and board are too dumb to realize they are getting played," former BlackBerry chief executive Jim Balsillie told the Associated Press.

“We are unwavering in our commitment to serving the public interest and look forward to receiving the advice of the [Digital Strategy Advisory Panel]” said Michael Nobrega, Acting CEO of Waterfront Toronto, in an emailed statement. “We are also well supported by external privacy and legal experts including a former Federal Privacy Commissioner, and continue to welcome the comments and interest of a broad base of community members.”

Read More: Google Is Still Planning a ‘Smart City’ in Toronto Despite Major Privacy Concerns

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Dan Levitan, a spokesperson for the Sidewalk Labs project, emphasized that the advisory panel was the city's, not Sidewalk Labs'. "This panel is independent from us," he wrote Motherboard in an email, "and the resignation of a longstanding critic of the project is not a surprise, but we take seriously questions about data and expect in the months ahead to present and consult with the public on a comprehensive plan for data collection, use, and governance.”

In her resignation letter, Muzaffar—who founded the nonprofit group TechGirls Canada—also criticized a lack of transparency on Waterfront Toronto’s part in communicating the plan to the public. Even more importantly, she drew attention to the risk of entrenching ill-considered surveillance technology in city infrastructure.

“Broad licensing that does not prioritize digital rights of the public can mean that surveillance infrastructure and valuable public data can lay latent for long periods of time, and avoid scrutiny easily, tucked in a foreign-owned company’s proprietary vault,” she wrote.

Motherboard reached out to Muzaffar and will update with comment when we get it.

Muzaffar wrote that she will be dedicating time to working with community partners to develop alternatives to the Sidewalk Labs plan to “ensure the City of Toronto thinks about all of its options, not just this option.” Waterfront Toronto, she wrote, needs to “ensure that both the data and the digital infrastructure in all its developments is controlled by our public institutions.”

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Update: This story has been updated with comment from a spokesperson for the Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto.

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