Alex Satola: The dangers of Alphabet’s data grab in Toronto

Sunday, November 11, 2018 - 4:29pm

Those who share my concerns about the growing dominance of technology corporations know the major source of their influence comes from data. The usual suspects — Google, Amazon and Facebook — would not be able to reap such massive profits from their services without the vast quantities of data their users provide. The unfortunate reality is tech companies will not stop at the command of the digital world; they want control of where we live, too.

My latest fears stem from an urban renewal project in Toronto’s Quayside neighborhood managed by Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, that purports to engage in “urban innovation.” Just as the Google search engine has fine-tuned the way we research online, Sidewalk Labs now aims to transform a decrepit, flood-prone area in Toronto’s eastern waterfront into a “smart city” that will integrate data into the everyday lives of its residents. Some of the early proposals included self-driving cars, sensors that measure air quality and solutions pertaining to sustainable building and energy use. Sidewalk will also enlist the help of third-party developers and consultants to help with various tangible aspects of the project. The initial illustrations completed by Michael Green Architecture are, I will admit, very appealing, though perhaps a little imaginative.

Beyond the high-rise timber buildings and floating movie theaters, however, lies a threat to the residents of Toronto: mass surveillance and retention of information. On the one hand, Sidewalk claims it is working closely with privacy experts and the local community to make sure people’s personal information is protected. One of the supposed guiding principles of the project is “Privacy by Design,” a concept developed in the 1990s by Ann Cavoukian, the information and privacy commissioner in Ontario, that prioritizes company-driven protection of personal information.

Sidewalk invited Cavoukian to work with the team last year as a consultant, but in October she resigned to “send a strong statement” about the prevalent data privacy issues in the project. The reason for her departure centers around access of third parties to stores of “identifiable” information collected as a part of Sidewalk’s services. Obviously it would be impossible to obtain everyone’s consent for, say, CCTV footage of pedestrians recorded in order to measure foot-traffic patterns, but in order to counteract this type of situation Sidewalk says it will use a slew of de-identification techniques. However, while Sidewalk has committed to de-identification practices, it admitted it could not force third parties to do the same. When Cavoukian heard this in a meeting, she packed up and left, saying, “I’m sorry. I can’t support this. I have to resign because you committed to embedding privacy by design into every aspect of your operation.”

It is a pretty bad sign for your data-driven urban innovation venture when one of the foremost data privacy experts in North America makes such a vote of no-confidence. The former CEO of Blackberry Jim Balsillie put his opinion in less neutral language by calling the project “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism.” Indeed, the privacy-conscious minds in the tech industry all seem to be thinking along similar lines.

It all raises the question: Why would Alphabet want to do this? Why make an upwards of $50 million investment in this seemingly random Canadian neighborhood? The biggest reason is data: Its availability offers immense value to these types of companies. The data to be mined in Toronto represents trillions of dollars of intangible assets that easily outweigh any current or expected investment. Hardly any actual opposition stands in their way, and Sidewalk is taking all the ground they can get in terms of self-governing the entire project. During the public announcement, former Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt touted the long-standing goal for “someone to give us a city and put us in charge.” Unlike elected officials or government appointees, there would be very little oversight or accountability coming from regulators, let alone people living in Quayside.

One way Sidewalk is confusing their critics into submission is the hijacking of data typology. Data typology simply refers to the kind of data Sidewalk is trying to collect, and different types are subject to their own level of regulatory scrutiny. In a recent draft proposal, Sidewalk actually creates a new type called “Urban Data” for regulators to puzzle over. The ambiguity of this term is further complicated by the fact that it includes data ranging from CCTV camera footage to thermostat usage. Though “data laundering,” whereby criminals disguise the proceeds from illegal activities by “mixing” it with money from cleaner sources, is already used in cybersecurity to describe the sale of illegally mined data, the analogy works well for the massive amounts of data to be collected in Toronto, too. Sidewalk is placing more benign data types alongside more valuable, sensitive personal information and placing them all under the umbrella of Urban Data with its own unique set of rules. As long as Sidewalk has the ability to set its own guidelines, it will employ a healthy amount of obscurity as a tool against regulation.

Another major issue with the Toronto project is the role of intellectual property. Though residents may benefit from the amenities and quality of life on offer, businesses that work with Sidewalk may lose the ability to license their IP externally. In July, a “plan development agreement” between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk outlined how Waterfront Toronto could benefit from a stake in the project’s IP. Conversely, a design-procurement document obtained by a Canadian news outlet in August showed Sidewalk asking potential consultants to cede their IP rights, or at least to give them exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide license to the rights. Sidewalk’s manipulation of other entities — whether they be government agencies, private companies or the citizens of Toronto — shows their unrestrained influence in the project.

Whatever the outcome of the Sidewalk Toronto project, its legal framework will serve as the benchmark for future data-driven urban innovation projects. Let it be a framework that not only encourages innovation, but fairness and safety with regard to all parties involved.

 

Alex Satola can be reached at apsatola@umich.edu.

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