Demanding our Privacy Rights Get a Seat at the Table

April 16, 2019

Brenda McPhail
Director of Privacy, Technology & Surveillance Project
bmcphail@ccla.org

 

 

 

 

CCLA is going to court to reset the Waterfront Toronto/Sidewalk Labs smart city project.  A lot of people say, “wait for the plan, nothing has happened yet. Even if the plan is approved, it will take a long time for shovels to hit the ground.”  We have considered that perspective, and don’t take this action lightly. We are not scared of change or innovation. We are not anti-tech. We are firmly and unapologetically pro-rights and freedoms, and the way this project was conceived puts many of the rights people in Canada value at risk.

The problem is, the process that led to this project in the first place was fatally flawed and then presented to the public as a fait accompli, announced with fanfare by the Prime Minister, then Premier, and Mayor.

The problem is, the last year and a half of consultations haven’t been asking whether Torontonians want Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, to create a sensor-laden “test bed” on the Waterfront, either in the Quayside Neighbourhood or ultimately across the Portlands. They have just been discussing what it should look like and promising us it will be awesome.

The problem is, we increasingly realize comprehensive data collection that permits granular monitoring of people’s activities and behaviour online is harming individuals and groups, infringing human rights, and diminishing human autonomy. So why on earth would we think it’s a good idea to import that big data model into our city streets by embedding multiple kinds of surveillance technologies into our infrastructure?  A city built “from the internet up” sounds more like a threat than a promise.

The problem is, virtually everyone—project detractors and supporters alike—agrees that the laws we have to protect privacy are simply not good enough to safeguard us against the potential harms of this kind of pervasive surveillance infrastructure. Many of the technologies that will facilitate the smart city were unimagined when our laws were written. Data has a different value now, whether it is individualized or aggregate, because it can be used in so many ways that create potential benefits but also raise concrete risks. Voluntary best practices, self-assessments for responsible data use, civic data stewardship models, none of these are bad but they are inadequate. We need, and deserve, accountable, enforceable legislation, not promises of good behaviour.

The list of problems could (and does) continue. Which is why the Quayside project should not.

Our Notice of Application filed today, which we bring forward with co-applicant Lester Brown, a citizen of Toronto, is addressed to Waterfront Toronto and all three levels of government, municipal, provincial and federal. We are arguing that the agreements at the heart of the project are in violation of administrative and constitutional law, and are thus invalid. This project should be reset as a result.

We will keep you updated about this litigation over the upcoming months. For today, we wanted to share the news of its launch.

CCLA is grateful for the work by our amazing counsel, a team from Fogler Rubinoff LLP led by Bill Hearn and Young Park.

Read our filed Notice of Application