toronto's "smart" city

The issue

In 2019, CCLA began a significant fight for privacy rights in Canadian cities. It began with a smart city project in Toronto, but it has the potential to set a precedent for all cities and city residents across the country.

A year before a deal between Sidewalk Labs (Google’s sister company) and Waterfront Toronto was struck, Sidewalk had envisioned what a smart city under their care would look like. They articulated their founding vision into a 437-page yellow book which outlined how residents would be rewarded based, in part, on how much data they were willing to share. They proposed that cities give them the authority to tax residents and to create and control public services like schools and transit. They even proposed that Sidewalk have its own police authority and an alternative approach to jailing residents.

While their vision for Toronto doesn’t go quite so far, its foundation matters. It is a frightening thought that Toronto may be the testing ground for products designed to leverage data and monitor or ultimately influence human behaviour, porting an internet model of surveillance capitalism from our computers to our city streets. What is happening in Toronto is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to erosion of privacy rights in projects that pitch the ability to monitor, count, sort, and track people as a feature, not a flaw. But is this really “smart”?

We believe the question is not how to use tools of mass surveillance, but why we would allow them to be used at all.  What is at stake is the fundamental human dignity and personal autonomy owed to people who live and move about in our Canadian communities, including the opportunity to be just a face in the crowd.

Click here to sign our petition against selling our privacy.

Our recent work

2019 fight for privacy

So, CCLA is doing what we do best; we’re going to court. 

We’re fighting for the fundamental human right to privacy—and all the other rights privacy supports, including free expression and association. We will argue that Waterfront Toronto did not have the jurisdiction to sign off on a data surveillance project with a sibling of the biggest data collector on the planet. 

Our Charter-protected rights to privacy, liberty and free association are at risk if we allow our streets, shops, and even homes to become part of a sensor-laden, intensively surveiled neighborhood.

The Google-Waterfront Toronto deal is invalid and needs to be reset. These agreements are contrary to administrative and constitutional law, and set a terrible precedent for the rest of this country. Unlawful surveillance is wrong whether done by data profiteers or the state. We all deserve better from our federal, provincial and municipal governments,” says Michael Bryant, Executive Director and General Counsel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

We won’t stop fighting for privacy rights to be respected and upheld by governments and corporations.


November 15, 2019 – Sidewalk Labs submits the Digital Innovation Appendix (DIA) to Waterfront Toronto and their Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. This document pulls together and provides a bit more detail on the digital innovations proposed in the MIDP.

October 31, 2019 – Waterfront Toronto announces they have reached agreement on the “threshold issues” they identified subsequent to the delivery of the the Master Innovation Development Plan (MIDP)

June 17, 2019 – Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto release the 1500+ page Master Innovation Development Plan (MIDP)

April 16, 2019 – Canadian Civil Liberties Association along with co-applicant Lester Brown, commenced proceedings against Waterfront Toronto, and all three levels of government; seeking a reset of the Sidewalk Toronto project.

July 31, 2018  – Waterfront Toronto’s board approved a Plan Development Agreement (PDA) with Sidewalk Labs defining and governing the relationship between the two organizations in the development of a Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) for Quayside