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Sidewalk Labs

Sidewalk Labs’ Struggle Is a Cautionary Tale of the Growing Importance of Privacy

As many of you already know, Google’s smart city division Sidewalk Labs is developing a new district in Toronto. This patch of waterfront on the edge of town is called Quayside and is being built, as the tagline suggests, “from the internet up.”

There are many innovative new technologies being proposed for the area that include modular, moveable pavement tiles and expandable clear canopies that block the elements but let in the sun. Since the Quayside project is effectively a testing ground for many of these new innovations, sensors of all types will be deployed to capture as much information as possible about how people interact with the space.

This data collection is vital to the project because the insights that it can generate will change the later stages of development. But it is also one of the sticking points as many citizen and city officials have raised privacy concerns. To address these concerns Sidewalk Labs published initial proposals about data governance that include creating an independent trust that would be in charge of overseeing the data collection techniques in the district.

But this wasn’t enough for one of their consultants, Ann Cavoukian, the former information and privacy commissioner for the province of Ontario. She recently resigned over her disagreements with the current plan because it wouldn’t require the trust to “de-identify” or anonymize data at the source.

Sidewalk Labs’ perfectly legitimate response is that it shouldn’t be responsible for setting policy in Quayside and wants to give the trust the autonomy to decide its own actions. This small clause, whether or not the trust will have the authority to decide if the data gets anonymized at the source, has created a debate and headache that I am sure no one at Sidewalk Labs wanted.

This comes during a time of heightened public awareness of data privacy for technology companies, likely due to a number of high profile data breaches. This is a great lesson for us in the property and PropTech industries. All of the talk of the power of data collection in the built world rarely focuses on privacy. Buildings can collect some of the most sensitive information on its occupants so any conversation around sensors and data collection isn’t complete without understanding how privacy will be protected. If the details of how data will be managed to ensure privacy for those who created the data then pushback against data collection in PropTech will be inevitable.

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