toronto's "smart" city

Statement from Canadian Civil Liberties Association on the Reset of the Quayside Project

Toronto, Canada

May 7, 2020

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has always said the Quayside smart city project, co-led by Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs, needed to be reset. We launched our court application to help make that happen. Today’s news that Sidewalk Labs has withdrawn from pursuing the project is a victory for privacy and democracy, clearing the way for that reset to take place.

Waterfront Toronto never had the jurisdiction to sign off on a data surveillance test bed with a Google sibling. Serious harms to privacy would have been our future. The current Canadian regulatory landscape simply lacks modernized privacy legislation to provide essential safeguards to protect residents and visitors from the kinds of ubiquitous and intensive sensor-laden infrastructure that was envisaged. So the project was fundamentally flawed from the outset. Now we as a society have a chance to fix that privacy deficit and provide the right foundation to consider how, where, and when technology can be used to meet real city needs, as expressed and experienced by residents.

We firmly believe that a major factor in the Quayside reset was the powerful resident and legal challenge, from CCLA, from #BlockSidewalk, and from the thousands of people who attended consultations, asking critical questions, and demanding protection for their rights. People in Toronto called for city building focused on resident needs and led with democratic accountability — something Waterfront Toronto never had. We now have another chance to get this right.

At CCLA, we strive to set precedents that support civil liberties, rights and freedoms across Canada. The precedent set today is a good one. We look forward to contributing to any constitutionally sound, transparent effort to get this right; to restructure the Quayside vision as one that will be genuinely sustainable, privacy respecting, and inclusive—a Smart City that Toronto deserves.

In the spirit of transparency, we are making public all the documents we served upon Waterfront Toronto, including the expert reports that hit the sidewalk last week, perhaps the final dagger to Quayside I.0: As for the litigation, we will await the fate of the legal agreements between Sidewalk and Waterfront, before being able to confirm the expected. Thank you to Fogler Rubinoff LLP: Bill Hearn, Young Park, and his litigation team.


Michael Bryant
Executive Director and General Counsel

Brenda McPhail, PhD
Director, Privacy, Technology & Surveillance Project

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.

Our work

our fight for privacy

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.


May 7, 2020 Sidewalk announces it will abandon the Quayside project.

March 26, 2020 The Waterfront Toronto Board of Directors passed a motion to extend the deadline for approval of the MIDP from May 20, 2020 to June 25, 2020.

March 17, 2020 Toronto Waterfront Revitalization et al. vs CCLA et al. is temporarily adjourned by the Court, subsequent to the March 16 decision to hear only urgent matters to respect public health measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19. We will post a new date here when one is assigned by the Court.

February 26, 2020 Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel releases supplemental commentary on the Digital Innovation Appendix.

December 11, 2019 Ontario’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts questioned Waterfront Toronto on the findings of the Auditor General in her 2018 Annual Report. Transcripts of that session are currently available and a formal report will be released.

September 10, 2019 Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel releases preliminary commentary on Sidewalk Labs MIDP.

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