Sidewalk Labs advisor quits Toronto project over privacy concerns
- Saadia Muzaffar, the founder of TechGirls Canada, has resigned from a panel advising Google offshoot Sidewalk Labs’ smart city test site in Toronto. In a resignation letter, Muzaffar said she was leaving Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel because organizers showed "apathy and a lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust" over data and privacy concerns.
- That's been a frequent criticism of the project, which would apply smart cities tech to a 12-acre section of Toronto’s waterfront, with citizens wondering how much surveillance power Sidewalk Labs might have. Even Toronto Mayor John Tory has said that Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, and other organizers need to share more information with the public.
- "I have yet to see evidence that Waterfront Toronto shares the urgency and concern that has been raised in multiple fora," Muzaffar wrote in her resignation. "The most recent public roundtable in August displayed a blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital infrastructure."
The Quayside project is meant to provide a model for the connected city of the future, with amenities ranging from underground delivery systems to dynamic pavement to translucent covers for buildings that can react to the weather as a sort of "raincoat." The actual project is still years away — Sidewalk Labs hopes to break ground in 2020 with residents moving in by 2022 — but organizers have opened an office in Toronto to show off the technology they hope to use.
Even in its early stages, the project has been controversial, with citizens wondering how Google might use any data it acquires about people in Quayside and how tech companies would be surveilling residents and visitors. Julie Di Lorenzo, a Toronto developer who previously resigned from the Waterfront Toronto board, questioned in the Associated Press how Waterfront Toronto, "a corporation established by three levels of democratically elected government, [has] shared values with a limited, for-profit company whose premise is embedded data collection?"
Muzaffar, who noted in her letter that she was the only person of color on the panel, also wrote, "Broad licensing that does not prioritize digital rights of the public can mean that surveillance infrastructure and valuable public data can lay latent for long periods of time, and avoid scrutiny easily, tucked in a foreign-owned company’s proprietary vault."
In response to the concerns, Waterfront Toronto acting CEO Michael Nobrega told Vice and other outlets that the firm was "unwavering in our commitment to serving the public interest" and was "well supported by external privacy and legal experts including a former Federal Privacy Commissioner, and continue to welcome the comments and interest of a broad base of community members."
Follow Jason Plautz on Twitter