The Quayside project would create housing, heated sidewalks, autonomous vehicle infrastructure and data-collecting sensors on five hectares of Toronto waterfront. (Sidewalk Toronto/hand out photo/The Canadian Press)

Court case launched over privacy issues in ‘smart city’

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The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has filed a lawsuit over plans to build a high-tech neighbourhood in downtown Toronto that would be equipped to collect multiple kinds of data on people there.  Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, plans to develop five hectares of waterfront land inserting high-tech sensors to track information throughout. There are several projects around the world to create this kind of “smart city.”

A preview of the ‘smart city’ project features modular pavement with lighting, heating, and porous slabs designed to soak up water and funnel it into stormwater systems. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press/March 1, 2019)

Call for government to protect constitutional rights

As for Toronto’s Quayside project, the CCLA says three levels of government have given over the management of data collection to an unelected board and a private company. It argues it is governments’ responsibility to make sure the project respects Canadians’ constitutional rights to privacy under section eight of the charter, as well as freedom of assembly, of expression and thought under section two of the charter.

“Instead what’s happened is, we’ve just handed the keys to the kingdom over to a company whose job it is to make money off of our identity and our data. That’s what’s at stake here,” says Michael Bryant, executive director and legal counsel for the CCLA. “It’s pretty fundamental. I think it’s scary.”

‘I don’t want to be a lab rat for Google’

Bryant says there is a need to act quickly. He says that before developing or starting the Quayside project, governments need to create a policy on the collection and use of digital data.

“You need to take control. You need to take this project back. You need to decide what the privacy rules are and where our freedom begins and ends,” says Bryant. “And you need to make a very fundamental decision about whether or not we’re ever going to allow public surveillance on our streets and sidewalks or are you going to let your citizens be lab rats for Google. I for one, don’t want to be a lab rat for Google.”

A spokesman for the mayor of Toronto told the Globe and Mail newspaper that Sidewalk’s final plan for Quayside will go through “full public scrutiny” for a variety of issues including privacy. The project cannot go ahead unless approved by the federal, provincial and municipal governments.

CCLA’s Michael Bryant says governments need to take over the Quayside project and develop a policy on the collection and use of digital data.

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