IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Waterfront Toronto Smart City Plans Raise Privacy Concerns

Two years after Alphabet subsidiary Sidewalk Labs was named the private-sector partner to revitalize a waterfront community in Toronto, citizens and city officials remain divided about whether to move forward.

The plan for a data-driven, mixed-use, responsive community in Toronto has been mired in controversy since its inception.

Sidewalk Labs, owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, envisions a modern, tech-powered community that realizes sustainability goals through a variety of cutting-edge tools. The collection of systems envisioned for Quayside will add up to the biggest “climate-positive community at scale in northern America,” according to Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff.

Urban innovations include traffic signals that would prioritize pedestrians needing more time to cross the street by deploying technology that would judge their speed and adjust signals in real time. Dynamic curbs would feature passenger loading zones during rush hours and public spaces in off-peak hours; a freight logistics hub with underground delivery would reduce truck traffic on the local streets, and a self-financing light-rail transit extension would connect residents to jobs and entice workers and visitors to the waterfront.

In addition, the project would include advanced power infrastructure and stormwater management and pneumatic waste collection. With the traffic and curb technology along with proposed cycling infrastructure (100 percent of buildings will be reachable by cyclists via a dedicated bike lane or cycling street) and expanded public transit, Sidewalk Labs estimates that once the project is at full scale, 77 percent of trips in Quayside will be via public transit, cycling or walking.

But every element of the plan is subject to approval, Doctoroff noted in late June, in a nod to the misgivings voiced by many in the community in giving a private company that much power to direct municipal development.

“We would not expect to have any unilateral right to deploy that sort of technology,” Doctoroff noted. “We would need approval.”

Called Quayside, this 12-acre proposed development along the city’s eastern waterfront was announced in October 2017. The initial estimate to begin seeking approvals for implementation was December 2018, according to a March 2018 presentation from Sidewalk Toronto — the partnership between Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto, a government-appointed nonprofit focused on development.

But fast-forward to summer 2019, when Sidewalk Labs released "Toronto Tomorrow: A New Approach for Inclusive Growth,” a 1,500-plus-page Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), Torontonians remained divided about the vision for Quayside. As a result, the project’s fate is up in the air. 


The City Council and Waterfront Toronto are expected to vote on plans for Quayside in the coming months.

Concerns About Citizen Data

Since its inception, critics worried that such a mass collection of citizen data — especially from a tech giant like Google’s Alphabet — poses too substantial a risk to privacy. A Sidewalk Toronto project update that leaked to a local news outlet in February intensified that criticism, and a lawsuit from the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) followed, even before the MIDP was released.

The CCLA sued all three levels of Canadian government for a “reset of the Sidewalk Toronto project” for two primary reasons, one of which was the concern over citizen data collection. 

It’s nearly impossible to refute that Google collects gobs of data. In fact, a report released in August 2018 revealed just how much data Google collects on the average Internet user.

According to Google Data Collection, authored by Professor Douglas C. Schmidt of Vanderbilt University, the number of “passive” data collection events outnumber “active” collection events by approximately two-to-one (in active data collection, users directly engage with Google products and services; in passive data collection, Google collects data in the background). The study notes that passive collection was of greater interest because it goes beyond location data and “remains relatively unrecognized by the users.”

And in that passive collection, an Android device communicated roughly 900 data samples and 4.4 MB of traffic data (location, ad domains, device uploads, app store and “other”) to Google’s servers during a 24-hour period — roughly 40 data requests per hour. (By contrast, Google collected less than 1 MB of data from an iPhone in a 24-hour period — and had about one request per hour.)

So it’s no surprise that questions around data and privacy arose following the announcement of a smart city development described as “the world’s first neighborhood built from the Internet up.”

And that, said Brenda McPhail, director of the Privacy, Technology and Surveillance Project at the CCLA, is the broader problem — moving the model of the Internet into city streets.

“All you have to do is open the newspaper to understand some of the issues that are arising — privacy and surveillance and free expression and discrimination on the Internet,” she said. “So, at the core of our concerns about the way this will play out is how do we avoid those issues on city streets? How can we make sure that we’ve got the policies and the laws in place before we embed the sensors in our infrastructure?”


The proposal calls for hexagonal pavers that can be quickly reconfigured for changing urban needs.

Protecting Data, Privacy

In its winning proposal, Sidewalk Labs stated that “with heightened ability to measure the neighborhood comes better ways to manage it,” and that “Sidewalk expects Quayside to become the most measurable community in the world.”

And measurement requires data, which Sidewalk Labs still hadn’t truly addressed nearly a year after winning the bid. But Sidewalk proposed that Quayside data be controlled by an independent Civic Data Trust that “would be guided by a charter ensuring that urban data is collected and used in a way that is beneficial to the community, protects privacy, and spurs innovation and investment,” wrote Alyssa Harvey Dawson, general counsel and head of legal, privacy and data governance for Sidewalk Labs, in an October 2018 blog.

Although the Civic Data Trust was a mere idea back then, the Friday following its announcement, then-Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario Ann Cavoukian submitted her resignation letter, saying that the proposed protection plan “is not acceptable” and that personally identifiable data must be de-identified at the source (sensors, smartphones, surveillance cameras).

In the digital governance proposal released during the Civic Data Trust announcement, Sidewalk Labs noted that data would be de-identified but didn’t guarantee when or who would do it. In addition, Cavoukian learned during a meeting that week that “third parties could access identifiable information gathered in the district.”

Just a few weeks prior to Cavoukian’s resignation, tech entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar resigned from the Sidewalk Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel.

“The most recent public roundtable in August displayed a blatant disregard for resident concerns about data and digital infrastructure,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “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.”

Muzaffar also noted in her letter that at the time, there was “no version of being a good steward for the people of Toronto, where Waterfront Toronto does not ensure that both the data and the digital infrastructure in all its developments is controlled by our public institutions.”

The resignations and lawsuit aren’t the only hits against Sidewalk Toronto: On Feb. 25, 2019, Toronto residents took a stand, launching the #BlockSidewalk campaign “to stop Sidewalk Labs from ploughing ahead with a controversial proposal for the development of a large plot of waterfront land in downtown Toronto.”

Despite these high-profile resignations, Waterfront Toronto maintains “an exemplary relationship with them,” according to Waterfront Toronto’s vice president of Innovation, Sustainability and Prosperity, Kristina Verner.

And Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff made several data-related commitments in a press briefing when the company released the MIDP.

He said this independent and government-sanctioned trust (now being called the Urban Data Trust) will establish responsible data use guidelines that apply to all entities; approve and oversee proposed collections and uses of “urban data”; make publicly accessible data that could reasonably be considered a public asset and is properly protected; and improve transparency by publishing Responsible Data Use Assessment summaries and showing the location of approved devices on a publicly accessible map.

Doctoroff also vowed that Sidewalk Labs won’t sell personal information, use it for advertising or disclose it to third parties without explicit consent.

And while more compliance with Canadian data laws may still be required and likely will be “part of the process of working out a very complex arrangement,” he added, “we expect over the course of the next several months to be working through those things. At the end of the day, it will be their [Waterfront Toronto’s] decision. Whatever they come up with, we’re absolutely prepared to comply with.”

Doctoroff also said that Sidewalk Labs is committed to de-identifying data at the source and never sending it to the cloud, but that ultimately the rules should be decided through the democratic process.

Still, the CCLA’s concerns remain, McPhail said, adding that an interesting dynamic appeared after the plan landed.

“Before it was released, critics were told that we were being premature, that we should wait for the plan. Now that it’s released, those who feel their criticisms remain valid are accused of being afraid — of technology, innovation and bold change,” she said. “I think it’s important to stand firm and note that people can embrace technology but not street-level surveillance; appreciate innovation that works for us and reject innovation that uses us as inputs; and ask for change that responds to needs we express rather than telling us what we should want.”

Waterfront Toronto Media Relations and Issues Advisor Andrew Tumilty pointed out that Sidewalk Labs’ proposal was selected from an international RFP that was open for more than five months.

“But at the end of that RFP, all Sidewalk Labs was granted was the right to produce a proposal,” he added. “They don’t have permission to [fill] a pothole right now.”

The MIDP is going through a very thorough and extensive evaluation before Waterfront Toronto determines what to move ahead with, if anything, Tumilty said.

High-Profile Support

A few weeks after the draft MIDP was released, the Toronto Region Board of Trade — a large and influential chamber of commerce — issued a letter acknowledging that while the project has problems that must be resolved, it ultimately would drive solutions to development challenges in Toronto and should be allowed to proceed.

“Several issues and details must still be resolved; for example, Quayside and other similar projects in the Toronto region will have to comply with clear data privacy regulations that are not yet in place, and the eastern waterfront will still need a final path to rapid transit financing before this project can be developed to its full potential,” the board of trade wrote in the letter. “Nevertheless, we also believe there are many exciting ideas in this proposal that can help Toronto tackle some of the major challenges we face.”

Now that the MIDP is in the hands of decision-makers, city staff are reviewing it and consulting with the public and stakeholders, said David Stonehouse, director of the Toronto Waterfront Secretariat.

From Sidewalk Labs’ perspective, the MIDP is the result of extensive planning work and discussions with more than 20,000 Torontonians over the last year and a half, said Keerthana Rang, communications associate at Sidewalk Labs.

“Robust public debate and discussion will only make these ideas better and we look forward to continuing to consult with Torontonians across the city to get this right,” she said. “This project is for Toronto and it will be up to residents, Waterfront Toronto and all three levels of government to decide if it should go forward.”

The Waterfront Toronto Board decision and City Council vote is expected around fall 2019/winter 2020.