Alphabet's digital city on Toronto's waterfront is in danger of becoming surveillance city unless data is stripped of personal details from the get go, said one of the world's leading privacy experts.
Ann Cavoukian will meet with Waterfront Toronto, the government organization overseeing the project, this week to seek a commitment that information collected will be "de-identified." Cavoukian resigned as an adviser to Sidewalk Labs LLC, a unit of Google parent Alphabet, last month in protest over privacy concerns.
"If you can't insist upon data being de-identified at source, you're going to have a city of surveillance because everybody wants access to personally identifiable data," Cavoukian said. "That's the treasure trove and that's the exact opposite of what we want."
Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto unveiled a plan a year ago to turn a 12-acre patch of land on Lake Ontario into a "city of the future," showcasing green-energy systems and new housing techniques. It's been embroiled in controversy over how data from smartphones, sensors and the like, will be used.
The former information and privacy commissioner of Ontario emphasized that Sidewalk has never pushed back on de-identification at source but said it couldn't control what other companies would do. "That just set off all the whistles in my head," Cavoukian said.
She was hired as an adviser by Sidewalk Labs last December to embed her "privacy by design" framework in the project. The model holds that privacy must be incorporated into data systems, project designs and technologies by default and has been used by international organizations including the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.
Virtually all so-called smart cities, including those in Dubai and China, have turned into surveillance cities, said Cavoukian. She was hoping Toronto would buck the trend.
"I have a lot of international contacts and when they heard I was retained by Sidewalk Labs to embed privacy by design, they were all very optimistic that we were going to get a model for a smart city of privacy as opposed to surveillance," Cavoukian said. "All that's changed now."
Dan Levitan, a spokesman for Sidewalk, said the New York-based company believes there needs to be an independent body to set privacy rules. "It's really a question of who writes the rules: our point is that we can write rules for ourselves but it's not our place to impose rules on this place at large, because we don't think us or any entities should be imposing the rules," he said.