City of Surveillance

This is the title of an October 23, 2018 article to be found in The Guardian UK.  It refers to Toronto, Ontario, which is now negotiating with Sidewalk Labs, Google’s sister company, to implement the latest iteration of the “smart city”.  Toronto’s waterfront neighborhood Quayside is the gunea pig.  As Gabrielle Canon, author of the Guardian article, states, “Despite Justin Trudeau’s exclamation that, through a partnership with Google’sister company Sidewalk Labs, the waterfront neighborhood could help turn the area into a ‘thriving hub for innovation’, questions immediately arose over how the new wired town would collect and protect data.  A year into the project, those questions have resurfaced following the resignation of a privacy expert, Dr. Ann Cavoukian, who claimed she left her consulting role on the initiative to ‘send a strong statement’ about the data privacy issues the project still faces.”

Canon writes a bit further on in the article that “[a]fter initially being told that the data collected would be wiped and unidentifiable, Cavoukian told reporters she learned during a meeting last week that third parties could access identifiable information gathered in the district.”  For Cavoukian, this crossed the line.   She told the Global News, “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” [italics mine–dw].

Canon continues by citing other worrying examples of the shell game being utilized by Big Tech.  Saaida Muzaffar of TechGirlsCanada stepped down from its digital strategy advisory panel, announing that TechGirlsCanada was not adequately addressing privacy issues.

The response by the representatives of Big Tech were predictable.  Alyssa Harvey Dawson, Sidewalk Labs’ head of data governance, asserted that the Quayside project would “set a new model for responsible data used in cities.  The launch of Sidewalk Toronto sparked an active and healthy public discussion about data privacy, ownership, and governance.”  In a summary of the latest draft of the proposal, she recommends that the data collected in the city should be controlled and held by an independent civic data trust and that “all entities proposing to collect or use urban data (including Sidewalk Labs) will have to file a Responsible Data Impact Assessment with the Data Trust that is publicly available and reviewable.” But is this enough to ensure that privacy by design is embedded into every aspect of the system?  Jathan Sadowski, a lecturer on the ethics of technology, does not seem to be convinced of this.  He cautions that ..,[b]uilding the smart urban future cannot also mean paving the way for tech billionaires to fulfill their dreams of ruling over cities.  If it does, that’s not a future we should want to live in.”  In response to concerns of critics, Sidewalk Labs has issued a statement, saying “At yesterday’s meeting of Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, it became clear that Sidewalk Labs would play a more limited role in near-term discussions about a data governance framework at Quayside.  Sidewalk Labs has committed to implement, as a company, the principles of Privacy by Design.  Though that question is settled, the question of whether other companies involved in the Quayside project would be required to do so is unlikely to be worked out soon and may be out of Sidewalk Labs’ hands.  For these reasons and others, Dr. Cavoukian has decided that it does not make sense to continue working as a paid consultant for Sidewalk Labs.  Sidewalk Labs benefited greatly from her advice, which helped the company formulate the strict privacy policies it has adopted, and looks forward to calling on her from time to time for her advice and feedback.”

I have quoted extensively from this article because I believe that this progression of events is likely going to constitute a paradigm for the advance of repressive technologies all over the world.  Initiatives will typically begin with a professed strong commitment to privacy.  Then little by little it will become clear that even though the original consortium may remain committed to these principles, it will not be able to guarantee that third parties, which always insert themselves somewhere along the line, will exercise that same commitment.

For her part, perhaps Dr. Cavoukian will now rethink the position she professes about the general principles of Privacy by Design.  She avers that privacy and the interests of large-scale business should not be viewed as zero sum, insisting that we can have strict privacy rules in place concomittant with an environment in which large-scale business practice proceeds without serious impediment.  The paradigm I have outlined here suggests otherwise.

See how it gathers, the technological storm, which is now upon us…

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