Digital experts raise data privacy concerns in review of Sidewalk Labs project

A key panel of digital experts tasked with assessing the technological aspects of Sidewalk Labs’ controversial development plan for Toronto’s waterfront has issued a preliminary report that is critical of a number of core elements of the smart city project.Among the concerns that members of Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel (DSAP) raised are perceived flaws with the signature “Urban Data Trust” proposed by Sidewalk Labs to handle data gathered by the project and an overall lack of detail in the group’s plan.The report comes at a critical moment for the project, as Waterfront Toronto mulls over major issues ahead of an Oct. 31 deadline, at which point the public agency overseeing the project could opt to kill it. ‘Eyes fully open’: Waterfront Toronto executive says agency keeping tabs on Sidewalk parent’s missteps Inside Sidewalk Labs’ master plan to remake Toronto’s eastern waterfront Down to Business podcast: Why Sidewalk Labs’ sweeping Toronto smart city proposal faces hurdles The report is not meant to be an authoritative assessment of Sidewalk Labs’ master innovation and development plan (MIDP) and is careful to note that it is not a consensus view of the panel; rather, it reads as an assemblage of questions and concerns raised by individual members of the DSAP. It also noted that the DSAP’s role was to provide a critical assessment, meaning positive views may have been left out.Overall, the DSAP report is sharply critical of Sidewalk Labs for lacking specific detail — “frustratingly abstract” in the words of one panellist — when it comes to technology within the 1,500 page MIDP, which was publicly released in June.Where details were provided, panellists voiced concerns that Sidewalk Labs’ ambitions are either misguided, or cause for privacy concerns.“The document is somewhat unwieldy and repetitive, spreads discussions of topics across multiple volumes, and is overly focused on the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how,’” the report says.Waterfront Toronto, the public agency mandated to oversee revitalization of the city’s lakeshore, tapped Sidewalk Labs to create a development plan for a 12-acre parcel of derelict land. Sidewalk, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., eventually turned in an expansive proposal for a much larger area on the city’s eastern waterfront, with Sidewalk taking the lead but partnering with other developers and service providers.The plan has met public opposition and criticism, and Waterfront Toronto has raised certain basic objections with the scope and shape of the proposal. If those so-called “threshold issues” aren’t addressed by Oct. 31, the Waterfront Toronto board could vote to walk away from the project.Andrew MacLeod, the chief executive of Postmedia Network Inc., which owns the Financial Post, is a member of the board of directors of Waterfront Toronto.Sidewalk Labs is already promising more detail to address some of the issues raised by the DSAP report; the company will be presenting to the panel at a meeting on Thursday, with a forthcoming “digital innovation annex” to provide more information in October.“Most of the feedback we see in this interim report has been conveyed to us throughout our engagement with DSAP over the last few months,” said Keerthana Rang, spokesperson for Sidewalk Labs. “It is one of the reasons why we are producing the Digital Innovation Appendix which will include a comprehensive list of technology that would be deployed in Quayside, how we would support Toronto’s technology ecosystem, and our research work on data governance.”One specific example presented by the DSAP panellists is a proposed passive optical network technology — called “Super-PON” — which could potentially be used to deliver high-speed internet service to the new development.But the DSAP report suggests that Super-PON wouldn’t actually benefit residents, and only reduces costs for the service providers; moreover, there’s already a different internet service provider — Beanfield Technologies Inc — offering fibre-optic service in the area, based on a contractual relationship with Waterfront Toronto, the public agency overseeing the Sidewalk Labs development.“They would need to work with Beanfield to deliver that kind of service, and Beanfield would be interested in delivering that kind of service,” said Kristina Verner, vice-president of innovation, sustainability and prosperity at Waterfront Toronto.“Beanfield has the rights to be the telco in that space, and then if Sidewalk should work with Beanfield, it could be that’s the new network technology that goes in.”But the Sidewalk Labs development plan doesn’t mention Beanfield, and it’s not clear how they’d work together.The DSAP report also raises doubts about Sidewalk Labs’ proposed Urban Data Trust which would be a new regulatory body to manage data issues.The idea is that the new regulatory body would oversee all data collected in public spaces, but the DSAP panellists wondered if that would supersede the City of Toronto’s authority and whether it would be too onerous for small businesses, among other issues.“This leads to the follow-up question: to what extent is the Urban Data Trust duplicative of existing regulators, and to what extent does it add a potentially stifling compliance burden to small businesses (in addition to a potential cost to collect data)?” the report says.“It was noted by one Panelist that for this and other governance mechanisms, the MIDP does not make a clear case for why a new governance body is needed, as opposed to better resourcing for existing bodies, while other Panelists suggested that the MIDP could — or should — have been an opportunity for capacity building within the public sector,” the report says.Michael Geist, an academic specializing in internet law issues who chairs the DSAP, said that thorny data and privacy questions can’t be dismissed by putting those issues in the hands of an independent regulator.“To the extent to which anyone thought that simply saying we’ll fix all this through this new mechanism would simply wish the issues away, I think, would’ve been a mistake,” he said.Verner said the commentary from the DSAP closely mirrors the responses that Waterfront Toronto heard over the summer in a series of public consultation sessions, and it’ll all inform discussion that take place in the run-up to the Oct. 31 deadline.• Email: [email protected] | Twitter:

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