'City of Surveillance': Google-backed smart city sounds like a dystopian nightmare
A Google-backed project to build the interconnected, data-driven ‘city of the future’ sounds like all George Orwell’s nightmares come true, and is now in the spotlight after a privacy expert resigned from the project in protest.
Toronto’s Waterfront district used to be an industrial wasteland, but Sidewalk Labs – a sister company of Google – wants to turn that wasteland into a prototype ‘city of the future,’ where data helps planners micromanage every aspect of urban life. The planned Quayside neighborhood will house 5,000 people when built, expanding to host another 5,000 within three to four years, its creators say.
In running the neighborhood as efficiently as possible, Sidewalk Labs will utilize a range of innovative technologies. Sensors will manage street crowds and time traffic signals appropriately, cameras will watch over parks and public spaces, planners will be able to track the movement of every vehicle, person and drone, and garbage cans will monitor their owners’ trash to optimize waste management.
All of these data points will be fed into a database Sidewalk Labs calls its ‘Digital Layer,’ used by planners to monitor and tweak the neighborhood’s running, and then stored in a repository it calls the ‘Civic Data Trust.’ Nobody will own the data stored in the trust, and the trust’s board will decide who can access it.
That’s where the problems begin. Sidewalk Labs’ privacy consultant Ann Cavoukian had requested that the company scrub the residents’ data of all personal information, a request that Sidewalk Labs agreed to. However, the company said it would not require other parties with access to the trust to ‘de-identify’ any data collected, it would only “encourage” them to.
“When I heard that, I said, ‘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,’” Cavoukian told Global News, before severing her ties with the company on Friday.
Furthermore, Sidewalk Labs will allow third parties to build apps that plug into the digital layer, potentially giving them access to residents’ most intimate information. Your every move, your shopping list, the places you frequent, the events you attend and even the contents of your trash could all be fair game for third-party developers.
Cavoukian called the visionary project a “city of surveillance,” but she is not the only expert who finds the plan terrifying. Former Blackberry co-CEO Jim Balsillie called the project “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism,” and TechGirls Canada founder Saadia Muzaffar left her role on a Sidewalk Labs advisory panel earlier this month, saying she had “profound concerns” about the company’s “lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust.”
And why should the public trust a Google-connected company with its data? Google already keeps extensive records on its users. Every journey made with an Android phone, every YouTube video watched, data from every app downloaded, and sound and images from laptop microphones and cameras are all available to the tech giant by default.
All of this data is kept by Google, unless of course the government requests that Google hands it over – which US government agencies have done over 20,000 times in the first half of 2018, with over 80 percent of requests fulfilled.
Whatever about the government, at least private companies can’t access Google’s treasure trove of personal data, right? Wrong. Google told US senators in July that it lets app developers share user data with marketers for the purposes of ad-targeting “so long as they are transparent with the users about how they are using the data.” This notice can be seen in a pop-up box when a user installs an app, or can be buried in the app’s privacy statement.
With google already enjoying unfettered access to your digital life, Sidewalk Labs’ Toronto project looks set to extend that access into your physical life too. No wonder experts like Cavoukian are troubled by the privacy implications.
“Your personal information, your privacy is critical. It is not just a fundamental human right. It forms the foundation of our freedom,” she said.
Or, as Apple CEO Tim Cook put it at an EU-sponsored privacy conference in Belgium this week: “Data assembled to create a digital profile lets companies know you better than you know yourself. This is surveillance.”
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