Sidewalk Labs shares more specifics on how it will collect, use data

sidewalk labs

Sidewalk Labs has released its Digital Innovation Appendix, laying out more details about the Alphabet company’s proposed innovations, and how it hopes to collect and use data in its proposed smart city development in the Quayside area of Toronto.

Sidewalk Labs asserted it would not use personal data for advertising and surveillance, nor would this data be sold to third parties.

The appendix, which sits at just shy of 500 pages, was written to address criticisms around Sidewalk Labs’ Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP), released in June. This appendix comes just over two weeks after Waterfront Toronto agreed to move forward with Sidewalk on the development, but with revisions to Sidewalk Labs’ MIDP. The company said this appendix is based on what it called its foundational principles, which involves using the “least invasive” tech possible.

The document lays out 18 proposed digital services built up of 52 “subsystems” of services, 21 of which will collect personal information. A further 28 of these subsystems are expected to be procured from other companies, 13 would be solely created by Sidewalk, and 11 would be co-developed.

The appendix states that Sidewalk Labs will not use facial recognition technology in its data collection and that personal information will not be used for surveillance or advertising purposes, nor will it be auctioned to third parties without individuals’ “explicit” consent.

Sidewalk said data would be collected for some of its proposed innovations, such as a pay-as-you-throw garbage collection, mail delivery, ride-hailing, and for scanning energy use in apartments. Sidewalk said further details about how many sensors would be used will be included in forthcoming reports, according to the Toronto Star.

As part of its digital infrastructure, Sidewalk Labs plans to leverage Distributed Verifiable Credentials, which is what the company said is a “privacy-preserving technology” that offers individuals “control and transparency” over shared personal information in order to access digital products and services.

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It will also have what’s called a Responsible Data Use Assessment process for all of its data collection activities, even if these activities do not involve personal information. The approach is based on Privacy Impact Assessment tools, aimed at identifying and mitigating possible privacy risks of programs involving personal information.

As one of its digital principles, Sidewalk said strong privacy protections will be implemented “at all times” by “providing greater control over connected devices and by enabling greater visibility of and control over any potential security breaches.” It also stated that digital solutions will be open and ethical and that “everyone will be able to understand how their data is being collected and used, and how organizations can and will be held accountable for their practices.”

“The majority of services do not collect personal information. Moreover, the vast majority of data that would be created is non-personal, aggregate, or de-identified,” the appendix stated. “Personal information collected by the Digitally Enabled Services would not be used for surveillance purposes, sold to third parties, or used for advertising. It is also worth re-stating that Sidewalk Labs has committed to comply with all present — and future — Canadian privacy and data governance laws, regulations, and policy.”

Concerns over data collection and use have long beleaguered the Google sister company, and its efforts to mitigate anxieties have generally raised even more criticism. One privacy expert that spoke with BetaKit this year, Ann Cavoukian, said the company must make assurances that collected data will be de-identified at the source, so it cannot be traced back to a specific individual. More recently, US VC investor Roger McNamee weighed in, stating that technology companies, like Google, cannot be trusted to safely oversee the data collected from residents.

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In the recent meeting with Waterfront, it was agreed upon that Waterfront Toronto would be responsible for all digital governance and privacy undertakings collected at Quayside, scrapping the idea of an urban data trust proposed in Sidewalk’s MIDP. Sidewalk Labs also agreed to confine its development to the 12-acre plot at Quayside, rather than extending beyond Quayside into the Port Lands, which the Star revealed it planned to do earlier this year.

Sidewalk Labs said in its appendix that it would deploy cameras to help monitor, organize, and process waste to promote more responsible waste diversion practices for residents of the area.

In the section that details Waterfront Toronto’s Intelligent Communities Guidelines, the appendix lists out Waterfront Toronto’s desires to have Privacy Impact Assessments, Threat Risk Assessments, de-identification at source by default, and privacy by design. The guidelines will be applied to private companies using digital solutions in the Quayside area.

The appendix also put forward some of its proposed innovations, which include a “dynamic curb,” which would involve lighting that would alter the number of lanes, width, and direction of sidewalks.


Image courtesy Sidewalk Labs

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle Kirkwood

Isabelle is a Vancouver-based writer with 5+ years of experience in communications and journalism and a lifelong passion for telling stories. For over two years, she has reported on all sides of the Canadian startup ecosystem, from landmark venture deals to public policy, telling the stories of the founders putting Canadian tech on the map.

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