Google-affiliated company Sidewalk Labs has reportedly abandoned its plan to build a high-tech “smart town” on Toronto’s waterfront due to “unprecedented economic uncertainty.” The project had already faced controversy around the tech giant’s data collection plans, with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association called it a “data surveillance test bed.”
CBC reports that the high-tech Toronto neighborhood planned by Google-affiliated firm Sidewalk Labs has been abandoned, with the company citing “unprecedented economic uncertainty” motivating the decision. The project, dubbed Quayside, didn’t have the government approvals it needed to go ahead regardless and has been consistently questioned about the privacy aspects of the proposed neighborhood by Toronto citizens and civic leaders.
The “smart city” planned to feature cutting edge technology including heated sidewalks, autonomous cars, and residential towers constructed from timber. The project planned to create 44,000 jobs and generate $4.3 billion in annual tax revenues and add approximately $14.2 billion annually in gross domestic product for Canada.
Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said in a statement: “As unprecedented economic uncertainty has set in around the world and in the Toronto real estate market, it has become too difficult to make the 12-acre project financially viable without sacrificing core parts of the plan we had developed.”
Toronto Mayor John Tory also commented on the decision stating: “Toronto’s economy will come back strong after COVID-19 and we will continue to be a magnet for smart people and smart companies.”
Many questioned Sidewalk Labs data collection techniques if the neighborhood were to go ahead, the firm released a 482-page Digital Innovation Appendix in response explaining exactly how data captured in the area would be used. The firm also promised to not use facial recognition software or citizen’s personal information for advertising purposes.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has called the project’s cancellation “a victory for privacy and democracy, clearing the way for that reset to take place.” The organization added in a statement:
Waterfront Toronto never had the jurisdiction to sign off on a data surveillance test bed with a Google sibling. Serious harms to privacy would have been our future,” the organization said in a statement.
The current Canadian regulatory landscape simply lacks modernized privacy legislation to provide essential safeguards to protect residents and visitors from the kinds of ubiquitous and intensive sensor-laden infrastructure that was envisaged. So the project was fundamentally flawed from the outset.
In October of 2018, Ann Cavoukian, the former privacy commissioner of Ontario and a consultant to Sidewalk Labs, quit the project. Cavoukian was recruited to join the project as a consultant but handed in her resignation letter recently, stating: “I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance.”
Jim Balsillie, the former CEO of Blackberry, referred to the Sidewalk Labs neighborhood in an op-ed as “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.” Cavoukian stated that her resignation from the project was intended to be a “strong statement” on user data privacy abuses.
“I felt I had no choice because I had been told by Sidewalk Labs that all of the data collected will be de-identified at source,” said Cavoukian. She reportedly resigned after discovering that such anonymization methods could not be guaranteed and citizens’ data could be at risk. When Cavoukian realized that third-parties may have access to the data, she felt it was time to leave the project: “When I heard that, I said, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t support this. I have to resign because you committed to embedding privacy by design into every aspect of your operation.’”
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Lucas Nolan is a reporter for Breitbart News covering issues of free speech and online censorship. Follow him on Twitter @LucasNolan or contact via secure email at the address email@example.com