- Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s smart cities arm, has introduced a "visual language" of signage to let people know when and how technology is being used to track or monitor them.
- According to a Sidewalk Labs blog post, the hexagonal signs will include information about what the technology is being used for, what the technology is sensing, what data will be identified, whether people can be individually identifiable and what company is doing the monitoring. The idea is that multiple hexagons could be combined for complex technology, and one hexagon would include a QR code for people to find more information.
- The signs will be piloted at 307, Sidewalk Labs’ workspace in Toronto, but Sidewalk Labs says it hopes other companies could adopt the same signage.
Sidewalk Labs’ efforts to build a smart city pilot in the Quayside neighborhood of Toronto has been dogged by security and privacy concerns, with citizens and visitors worried about how their data will be collected and stored. The company has addressed the latter concern by proposing an independent third party store all data, with other entities having to file public requests to access it. But there’s still concern about how much control people would have over how and when their data is monitored.
In a blog post, Sidewalk Labs wrote that “people should know how and why data is being collected and used in the public realm, and we also believe that design and technology can meaningfully facilitate this understanding.” The language was designed following co-design sessions with more than 100 participants from cities around the world, with an eye to being visually interesting and simple, as opposed to “long, jargon-filled privacy and data collection policies” that the company admits nobody really reads.
As proposed, the hexagonal signs — which stand out because that shape is not widely used — would have simple visual cues. For example, a camera icon would indicate that photos are being taken, and the background color would show whether identifiable information is being stored or de-identified before first use. QR codes would link the public to “digital channels” that provide even more details about the technology.
As Fast Company notes, the signs will help Sidewalk Labs comply with Canada’s Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, which requires that companies disclose if they are collecting personal data, although the company says the new tools actually exceed the law’s requirements. With more scrutiny over how companies are building out sensor networks and how data will be collected, public signage could also help Sidewalk Labs get ahead of other local and federal laws elsewhere.