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Google’s “smart city” idea in Canada is such a threat to privacy, civil liberties groups are having to sue the government to stop it

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The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) is suing three levels of the Canadian government over a Google-backed plan to build a smart neighborhood in Toronto. The suit claims that some of the legal agreements related to the development of this smart neighborhood violate the personal and collective privacy rights of Canadian citizens and that the agreements should be dissolved.

The smart city development project is run by Waterfront Toronto, a group created by the Canadian and Ontario governments and the City of Toronto to revitalize the waterfront area in the city, and Sidewalk Labs, an urban innovation organization that’s owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet.

The CCLA is suing Waterfront Toronto along with the municipal, provincial, and federal governments. At a recent press conference, the executive director and general counsel for the CCLA, Michael Bryant, suggested that two of the agreements between Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are illegal. He said:

“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.”

The CCLA lawsuit argues that this smart city project will lead to the development of “historically unprecedented, non-consensual, inappropriate mass-capture surveillance and commoditization of personal data of individuals who work live in, work in or visit Quayside.” It adds that Waterfront Toronto doesn’t have the power to create any adequate digital governance policies for this project and that the Canadian government needs to create new robust legislation for urban data collection before the smart city project moves forward.

Sidewalk Labs won the bid to develop a Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) for building this smart neighborhood on a 12-acre patch of industrial landscape in Toronto in October 2017. This MIDP is due to be delivered in Spring and when it’s delivered, it will be debated and voted on by the public and Canadian government.

The smart city project has been mired in controversy ever since Sidewalk Labs won the bid to develop an MIDP with critics and government officials concerned about the secretive nature of the MIDP deal and the potential implications it will have on citizen’s privacy.

Only one elected official, Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong has seen the deal. The deal is sealed so he’s legally not allowed to comment on the specific details of the details but he believes the deal should be made public and says he has concerns about its contents.

According to the BBC, the smart neighborhood will have lots of sensors that will collect data about traffic, noise, air quality, the performance of the electric grid, and waste collection. Sidewalk Labs told the BBC that the data from the sensors will give governments flexibility on how neighborhoods are used but will not be used to monitor or collect data on citizens. However, it hasn’t provided any specifics on how this personal data will be protected.

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