"Surveillance Capitalism" Crosses The Line: Privacy Expert Abandons Google-Backed Smart-City Project

Authored by Joseph Jankowski via PlanetFreeWill.com,

A privacy expert tasked with protecting personal data within a Google-backed smart city project has resigned as her pro-privacy guidelines would largely be ignored by participants.

“I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance,” Ann Cavoukian, the former privacy commissioner of Ontario, wrote in a resignation letter to Google sister company Sidewalk Labs.

“I felt I had no choice because I had been told by Sidewalk Labs that all of the data collected will be de-identified at source,” she added.

Cavoukian was an acting consultant involved in the plan by Canada’s Waterfront Toronto to develop a smart city neighborhood in the city’s Quayside development. She had created an initiative called Privacy by Design that aimed to ensure citizens’ personal data would be protected.

Once it became apparent that citizen privacy could not be guaranteed, Cavoukian decided it was time to leave the project:

But then, at a Thursday meeting, Cavoukian reportedly realized such anonymization protocols could not be guaranteed. She told the Candian news outlet that Sidewalk Labs revealed at that meeting that their organization could commit to her guidelines, but other involved groups would not be required to abide by them.

Cavoukian realized third parties could possibly have access to identifiable data gathered through the project. “When I heard that, I said, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t support this. I have to resign because you committed to embedding privacy by design into every aspect of your operation,’” she told Global News. – Gizmodo

Being touted as “the world’s first neighborhood built from the internet up,” the Google designed smart city is set to deploy an array of cameras and sensors that detect pedestrians at traffic lights or alert cleanup crews when garbage bins overflow, reports The Globe and Mail. Robotic vehicles will whisk away garbage in underground tunnels, heated bike lanes will melt snow and a street layout will accommodate a fleet of self-driving cars.

The city will also provide each citizen a “user account” which will allow access to “the various online services of the neighborhood and improve participatory democracy.”

Such an account could potentially work with facial recognition “and allow for example a repairman to get into a home to perform his duties and firefighters to have access a building when a fire alarm is triggered.”

The project’s critics included former BlackBerry CEO Jim Balsillie who referred to the development as “a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic and political issues.”

In an October op-ed, Balsillie describes smart cities as the new battlefront for big tech and warned that the commercialization of IP and data within the city would mean that personal information would just be another target of corporate digital-gold mining.

Balsillie writes:

The 21st-century knowledge-based and data-driven economy is all about IP and data. “Smart cities” are the new battlefront for big tech because they serve as the most promising hotbed for additional intangible assets that hold the next trillion dollars to add to their market capitalizations. “Smart cities” rely on IP and data to make the vast array of city sensors more functionally valuable, and when under the control of private interests, an enormous new profit pool. As Sidewalk Labs’ chief executive Dan Doctoroff said: “We’re in this business to make money.” Sidewalk also wants full autonomy from city regulations so it can build without constraint.

You can only commercialize IP or data when you own or control them. That’s why Sidewalk, as a recent Globe and Mail investigation revealed, is taking control to own all IP on this project. All smart companies know that controlling the IP controls access to the data, even when it’s shared data. Stunningly, when Waterfront Toronto released its “updated” agreement, they left the ownership of IP and data unresolved, even though IP experts publicly asserted that ownership of IP must be clarified up front or it defaults to Sidewalk. Securing new monopoly IP rights coupled with the best new data sets creates a systemic market advantage from which companies can inexorably expand.

A privately controlled “smart city” infrastructure upends traditional models of citizenship because you cannot opt out of a city or a society that practises mass surveillance. Foreign corporate interests tout new technocratic efficiencies while shrewdly occluding their unprecedented power grab. As the renowned technologist Evgeny Morozov said: “That the city is also the primary target of big tech is no accident: If these firms succeed in controlling its infrastructure, they need not to worry about much else.”

Ann Cavoukia’s decision to walk away from the project was made just weeks after Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel member, Saadia Muzaffar, resigned over concerns about how Google will collect and handle data collected from people within the smart city.

Saadia Muzaffar specifically pointed to “Waterfront Toronto’s astounding apathy and utter lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust and social licence.”

Local residents remain concerned over the lack of transparency in regards to the project as many believe the deal has been shrouded in secrecy. As Jim Balsillie described it:

“We are at a point where a secretive, unelected, publicly funded corporation with no expertise in IP, data or even basic digital rights is in charge of navigating forces of urban privatization, algorithmic control and rule by corporate contract.”