Whose data is it anyway?


A battle over data privacy in Toronto could shape the future of cities for decades, even centuries, to come writes Rory Olcayto


In October 2017, Google – or rather its sister company Sidewalk Labs (both are owned by parent company Alphabet) – announced it was building a new waterfront district in Toronto that “will combine forward-thinking urban design and new digital technology to create people-centred neighbourhoods that achieve precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity.” Sounds good, right?

In short, Sidewalk (pictured above) is set to unleash the transformative power of ‘big data’ upon the property, urban design and construction sectors. The model has in recent years already transformed shopping, advertising, television, taxi services, and much else. But what might the long-term consequence be for citizens ­– you and me – and can such an approach ever truly be reasonably termed as ‘people-centred’?

These are the questions that have troubled a leading data privacy expert so much that she walked away from her role as a project consultant with Sidewalk last month, a year after the ‘smart city’ project was announced. As the Toronto Star reported, Ann Cavoukian feared that Google’s city-making ambitions could be the first step on the road to becoming a ‘surveillance city’.

Despite the white-hot, super-contemporary nature of this emerging story, the heart of the matter is pretty straightforward: who gets to control the data that will be harvested by Sidewalk?

We’re talking weather data, pollution data, pollen-count data, traffic counts, energy consumption, the mass of recyclables and similar measures – but also personal data too. What you buy and where. Where you eat and drink. Where you linger. Street corners and even park benches will be monitored for activity. There will literally be nowhere to hide.

The plan is to place all the data harvested within an independent data trust, which can be accessed by companies partnering on the city-making project. Cavoukian resigned when she was unable to secure a guarantee that this data would be ‘de-identified’ at source so that it can’t be linked to a specific person, a practice she says is fundamental to the future of smart city development.

This week, however, Cavoukian met with project administrators Waterfront Toronto with the ensuing discussion positive enough for her to claim that there is now a ‘commitment’ to implementing ‘de-identification at source’, although she neglected to say she would return to her post as a Sidewalk consultant. Following the meeting she said: “From the beginning, I wanted it to be a smart city of privacy and not a smart city of surveillance.”

This battle is far from over. On the one hand we have Cavoukian, a strident champion of human rights; she created Privacy by Design, a framework that seeks to proactively embed privacy into the design specifications of information technologies. On the other, we have the world’s most powerful company, an advertising company at heart, whose main source of revenue is generated by selling ads linked to the searches you make.

There are two points of concern to note here. Sidewalk – Google, basically – has said nothing yet to reassure Cavoukian. Why not? And Waterfront Toronto is not the first smart city out there. Singapore, and increasingly Dubai, are far down the line already. They, however, are not places we associate with personal freedoms.

Given data collection on our city streets is just another way of privatising what’s left of the public realm, we should ask: is this an equitable way to improve upon our cities? Londoners have long fought the private development of the city’s commons and now have the chance now to take a lead in developing an ethical approach to personal data collection that happens in the public realm.

If we don’t, Silicon Valley will. Last October, at the project’s launch, Alphabet’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt asked his audience to consider “all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge”. How you feel about Schmidt’s suggestion might depend on how you feel about Google’s decision in May - just six months after it announced its new role as a property developer – to drop it’s founding motto, ‘Don’t’ be evil.’ Perhaps its just a coincidence.