Auditor General to Toronto’s Smart Cities: Not So Fast

Brenda McPhail
Director of Privacy, Technology & Surveillance Project





Ontario’s Auditor General this week took a provincial agency to task for its role in a Wall Street Sci-Fi plot that’s sadly true. The characters for Toronto’s version of a futuristic, digital Smart City were not as smart as they ought to have been, she concluded.  

Ever since Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs announced their Quayside smart city project, we at CCLA have been asking questions about privacy and security risks and the conundrum of consent for data collection in a sensor-studded city. There are also serious questions about intellectual property, public and democratic accountability, and whether the city and its residents, will be the true beneficiaries in the Waterfront/Sidewalk partnership.

It wasn’t supposed to go this way. A city “built from the internet up.” That was the original pitch by Sidewalk Labs in response to an RFP issued by Waterfront Toronto for an innovation and funding partner to develop the quayside waterfront lands in Toronto. It was an ambition worthy of a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company.

But all it takes is a quick spin through a newspaper pretty much any day of the week to see the privacy problems inherent to the internet’s primary business model—collecting buckets of data from everyday interactions and leveraging it for profit. What happens when we start building the capacity to collect information about our city citizens into our streets and buildings? And then what happens when that data is integrated with even more data, maybe information from, say, our personal smartphone running Google’s operating system?

On December 5th, Ontario’s auditor general’s annual report raised many of those same questions, while at the same time questioning the fairness of the process that led to Sidewalk Labs’ winning proposal. The report takes Waterfront Toronto to task for failing to “adequately consult with any level of government” regarding the project. It also identifies “concerns in areas such as consumer protection, data collection, security, privacy, governance, antitrust and ownership of intellectual property,” stating “These are areas with long-term and wide-ranging impacts that the provincial government, along with the City of Toronto, needs to address from a policy framework perspective to protect the public interest before this initiative proceeds further.”

The Auditor General of Ontario is right. Technological innovation can contribute to public good, or do harm. A city doesn’t get smart when it installs shiny new tech toys. It gets smart when residents, experts, technologists, elected officials, civil society, and other stakeholders engage in a serious process of imagining and then building a city that meets identified needs in ways that we can live with, and that reflect our shared values for a sustainable, inclusive, rights-respecting home. The auditor general’s report is a wake-up call.  

But it’s not the first. Former Ontario privacy commissioner and privacy expert Ann Cavoukian resigned from her role as internal privacy watchdog in October. There were many other resignations, all of which ought to have alarmed all three levels of government.

Other global Smart Cities are doing this differently than Toronto. But Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Keerthana Rang responded to the Auditor’s report with defensive spin which will probably not satisfy either Toronto residents or the auditor. Time for Toronto to get smarter on this file, and fast.

Chelsea Voronoff
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