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Big Tech Builds Smart Cities – How About The Public’s Best Interests?

Blog. Google’s plan of building a neighborhood in Toronto is moving forward. Until recently, urban planning was done by public authorities where the public had a right to know what was going on. These days might be over. There is no transparency about the data use, and the role of big tech in urban planning is blurring the lines between market and state.

There will be high speed internet all over. Self-driving cars will pick you up, whenever you need it. Heated sidewalks that stay free of snow and ice. Smart lighting that make streets easier and safer to navigate. It will not only be safer, but also environmentally sustainable.

These are some of the dreams of a ‘smart’ city. The planned new 12-acre neighborhood of Toronto, in which Google’s subsidiary Sidewalk Lab is investing $50 mio, has by some been labelled the “world’s first neighbourhood built from the internet up”. Others have called it “Google’s Guinea-Pig City.”

Embedded sensors all over the area will not only track energy usage and garbage bin occupancy, they’ll also be part of a huge surveillance system tracking every little move of every adult, every child and every visitor to the area.

And all the data – what happens to them. How are they used, re-used, stored, made commercial or? Until now, Waterfront Toronto, a government agency, that has approved Sidewalk Labs plans, has not come up with a transparent plan for that, and the cooperation with a big data tech company like Google makes a lot of people in the welfare society of Canada nervous.

“Google told us, that they are here to improve our lives and the environment. But that sounds like a politician and not a commercial company. It is very confusing. This really blurs the line between market and state,” said Bianca Wylie, who talked about the project at MyData18 in Helsinki end of August.

Wylie is Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in the Global Economy program where she works on examining Canadian data and technology policy decisions and their alignment with democratically informed policy and consumer protection.

And this project does not align with democratic values and openness, she said.

“Ten months into the process many issues have been raised about data – what will be collected, how will it be used, who will own it, where will it be stored, and many more. What does it mean for the people living in the neighborhood,” said Wylie.“They are not subject to freedom of information laws, so we cannot get information that way either.”

Sidewalk Labs itself says that it will not use the data for advertising purpose and never sell private information and that the project is based on privacy-by-design.

It’s not going to be a smart city of surveillance. It’s going to be a smart city of privacy,” said Ann Cavoukian, Sidewalk Labs’ lead outside privacy consultant on the project according to Politico. Cavoukian is known for Privacy by design principles and have been Ontario’s privacy commissioner. Sidewalk Labs CEO, Dan Doctoroff , is, by the way, former Deputy Mayor of New York City

‘Free’ has a Price

In many other cities than Toronto – Google and other big tech companies are offering their (often great but ‘free’) services to governments – from wi-fi infrastruture to building a whole smart city. It is very cheap or almost free.

“The biggest issue in the press has been privacy. That is really important. But the whole digital infrastructure and governance discussion is even more important”, says Wylie and offered five approaches to consider for residents and governments in other cities before they say yes to ‘free’ smart city development from big tech.

1. The procurement. Residents don’t necessarily share their politicians’ enthusiasm for this public-private constellation. Politicians might be blinded by exciting possibilities and changes.

2. People are not ready to talk about this. There has been no public education campaign in Canada. If people you are consulting don’t understand what you are talking about, they will end up rejecting it.

3. All data should be public data and belong to the people, not to a black box company.

4. There is nothing neutral about technology. What is the public version of a smart city? Not only Google’s version?

5. People walking around this neighborhood  are all having their body commodified.  We need agile policy. Some clear rules.

The big questions are: Is the partnership between governments and big tech in the public interests? And does anyone want to live in such a neighborhood?