Skift Take

It doesn't seem like a good idea to build a business, let alone make your home, in a surveillance experiment controlled by Alphabet. As data security and privacy become more important, the vision for the modern smart city will have to shift.

The movement toward smart cities has progressed slowly in recent years due to the complexity of not just building a completely new form of digital infrastructure but the political tensions surrounding turning a destination into a data extraction system.

It’s one thing for data on public utilities and traffic to be collected and accessed by government officials. It’s another for a private corporation to take the lead in developing a neighborhood to suit its vision of the future.

The master plan for Sidewalk Labs’ vision for Toronto’s waterfront was released last week, painting a picture of a multi-decade effort to build an innovation district that will not just revitalize the area but act as a model for future smart city projects built out of public-private partnerships. Sidewalk Labs falls under Alphabet, which is also the parent of Google. The project, though, has faced backlash from Toronto residents as it aims to transform a 12-acre lot into a testbed for the internet of things and new methods of data collection.

Sidewalk Labs identifies five key components of building the new district: economic development, sustainability, housing affordability, mobility, and urban innovation, which is vague but seems to mean using data to improve city services.

The pitch is that bringing 93,000 new jobs to a rebuilt neighborhood with affordable housing will allow for a diverse community that is well-positioned to thrive as a destination for innovation. Scooters, self-driving cars, modular pavement, multi-use public and business spaces, sustainable building materials, next-generation power systems, and more mark the far-reaching effort to put Alphabet in control of nearly every aspect of a neighborhood.

If the systems don’t exist yet to manage all these different elements, Sidewalk Labs is happy to help develop them. Terms like “opt-in customer analytics” are used to describe how businesses will be able to track visitors, and the company itself has developed an app called CommonSpace to help track and manipulate public spaces to attract more visitors. It plans on building a handful of digital services for stakeholders to use.

Sidewalk Labs itself will operate a high-resolution digital map of the community featuring inputs from sensors tracking utility use and other parts of the neighborhood’s infrastructure.

This goes beyond urban planning; much like how Google collects digital data to influence the behavior of its users, the Sidewalk Labs project aims to not just access but manipulate how people live their lives. A trial using Commonspace, for instance, was able to boost visitation to a Toronto park by 365 percent in 2017.

The group even created a new type of data, dubbed “urban data,” that sits outside the existing regulations of the Canadian government.

“Urban data would be broader than the definition of personal information and include personal, non-personal, aggregate, or de-identified data collected and used in physical or community spaces where meaningful consent prior to collection and use is hard, if not impossible, to obtain,” states the planning documents. “In that sense, urban data would be distinct from more traditional forms of data, termed here ‘transaction data,’ in which individuals affirmatively — albeit with varying levels of understanding — provide information about themselves through websites, mobile phones, or paper documents.”

At the core of the Sidewalk Labs project is the goal of tracking people without their consent. While the data will be protected as a “public asset,” Alphabet will still have access to all this data because its systems, of course, will be collecting it. The company calls for a public data trust to collect the information that is collected, but Sidewalk Labs’ systems will be interlocked with almost every aspect of not just infrastructure but city life.

“While there would not be proposed prohibitions placed on data collectors who would like to sell data containing personal information or to use such data for advertising, a higher level of scrutiny should be placed on projects that want to use personal information for these purposes,” states the plan. “… Sidewalk Labs has already committed publicly that it would not sell personal information to third parties or use it for advertising purposes. It also commits to not share personal information with third parties, including other Alphabet companies, without explicit consent.”

The problem is, as we’ve seen, tech giants are willing to bend the rules they have set in order to make money. Unsavory actors on digital platforms, as well, have taken advantage of loopholes and glitches as well.

Even if “explicit consent” is needed for a Sidewalk Labs partner to begin advertising to a customer, companies will find a way to get people to give consent. Free coffee, anyone?

Unnecessary Information

Toronto’s government will vote whether to play ball with Sidewalk Labs next year, and the narrative surrounding a partnership goes beyond just revitalizing the city’s waterfront.

While innovation districts like 22@Barcelona have found success developing new technologies, the marketing piece of the smart city craze shouldn’t be understated.

Destinations around the world have taken advantage of the branding opportunities that come from building new innovation districts. Attracting new businesses and investment also boosts a city’s travel industry, bringing business travelers and meeting attendees in droves. The improved areas, obviously, attract leisure travelers as well.

As global businesses spend more on cybersecurity, one has to wonder whether dispatching business travelers to surveillance cities poses a major risk. Could a competitor, for instance, be able to access the location data of its rival’s executive team? Could the behavioral modification techniques Sidewalk Labs aims to pioneer make it easier for a bad actor to know where an employee is and access their data?

Sidewalk Labs’ vision is progressive on its face, calling for affordable housing and a wider variety of public services than some existing examples, but visiting a destination controlled by a company that makes billions leveraging data should give pause to any traveler who values digital security.

Open data has been a cornerstone of the smart city vision for years. It hasn’t been a linear route from investment to innovation, as the evolution of digital innovation in London and Melbourne have shown.

As the influence of companies like Alphabet grow in the urban space, though, caution should be taken as surveillance capitalism moves into the physical world.


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Tags: destinations, economic development, smart cities, toronto

Photo credit: A mockup of Sidewalk Labs' vision for Toronto's Waterfront district. Sidewalk Labs / Twitter

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