Cavoukian was an adviser on the Quayside project, but she resigned after Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk refused to unilaterally ban participating companies from collecting non-anonymous user data.
Nearly every city-fixing proposal from Sidewalk Labs combines civil engineering with some element of data collection—what the vision document calls “ubiquitous sensing.” Quayside reduces carbon not just via a thermal grid, but by embedding each home and office with Alphabet’s Nest smart thermostats, which use “occupancy sensors” and predictive modeling to autonomously adjust temperatures throughout the day.
The city is literally built to collect data about its residents and visitors, which Cavoukian was clear-eyed about when she signed on to be an adviser. She’s worried about Sidewalk using all these cameras and sensors to track people on an individual level, to create real-life versions of the personal profiles Google already uses to track people online. Without anonymization, she said, a single person’s activities could be connected across multiple sources and varying databases to track his movements over the course of the day.
“I think it’s important to note that this project seeks to accomplish many things,” he said,“including delivering large amounts of affordable housing, a highly sustainable neighborhood, and economic activity and new jobs. All of that needs to happen along with policies that protect the public interest, including with regard to data. But, data is just one piece of this conversation.”
Quayside may very well accomplish these things, remaking the city as we know it and setting precedent for future projects like it. But the controversy has shown that it may need to reimagine not just traffic patterns and thermostats, but a set of rules for data, privacy, and corporate “innovation” in a context that has never existed anywhere else on Earth. Thus far, at least, that’s proved the most difficult project to pull off yet.