Before we answer the question of whether Sidewalk Labs is doing enough to protect privacy, we have to ask what Sidewalk Labs is up to in Toronto in the first place.
Sidewalk Labs is, of course, not just any urban consultancy. It’s an Alphabet company—Alphabet being the new umbrella for everything Google. It’s critical to remember that Alphabet subsidiaries can always be folded into Google if, and when, the time is right. Consider Nest, a smart-home company (thermostats, security cameras, smoke detectors) and former Alphabet subsidiary—it became part of Google earlier this year to better compete with Amazon and Apple.
To think about Sidewalk Labs, we must consider Google and its business model. Google provides a lot of useful services, from search to business collaboration tools, and mostly for “free.” But when things are given away for free, we have to ask what is the real price and who is paying. Like Amazon and Facebook, which are both also developing new urban neighbourhoods, the price of Google’s products is paid for in data. Google pioneered a model that Harvard business professor Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism.”
Google’s innovation was in noticing that whatever people do, they give off data, and that data had enormous potential for exploitation—for corporate profit, for state control and for security. Google captures this “data exhaust” and monetizes it—analyzing, packaging and selling it. As Ian Bogost says in his recent piece in the Atlantic, other people now “(k)now everything you say, do, dream, and desire—even the stuff you’re too ashamed to admit to yourself.”
But while the internet is locked up tight, what about the real world outside? We still do all this stuff out there and Google and the other Silicon Valley giants don’t know about it, they can’t gather that data—surely, vast avenues of our lives remain unknown and unmarketable? That was the case until the Internet of Things started to arrive. The Internet of Things promises to connect a sprawling network of previously unconnected things, from everyday domestic appliances like toasters and refrigerators in so-called “smart homes,” to urban infrastructure like street lights and mass transit in “smart cities.”
This isn’t just about personal data. The Internet of Things can collect and transfer all kinds of data. Some data—such as environmental data (temperature, rainfall, shade) and geospatial data (locations of things)—should be considered a public asset. Even if it doesn’t create an immediate privacy problem, it’s still ours and it’s still valuable. When the data being collected is our patterns and behaviours as a group, as residents, it’s also valuable information. It should be used in ways that we understand and agree to, for public benefit. Finally, making data anonymous doesn’t always address privacy problems, either. By linking data together, it can be used to infer information about us as types of people or even re-identify us as individuals.
We’re entering an age of indirect surveillance where familiar objects and our everyday surroundings betray us. Smart cities are surveillance cities. There is no getting around this. As Evgeny Mozorov commented recently, “[i]t is no coincidence that the city is also the first target of technology giants: if they manage to control its infrastructure, the rest will follow.”
Surveillance is neither good nor bad, but it can’t be managed and governed until we’re honest about its existence. We can’t wish it away by making simple gestures about the protection of certain aspects of individual privacy.
What’s more, emphasizing the privacy question plays into the hand Toronto was dealt with this deal. We reject the idea that it’s up to Sidewalk Labs to protect our privacy. That is the domain of people in a democracy and their elected governments. Why would a corporation be in charge of such a question?
This is about more than privacy. It’s about control, power and public good. Surveillance infrastructure and the data it generates must be a public asset under democratic control. If we agree we want to have it at all.
This article was originally published in the Toronto Star.