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Ontario's former privacy commissioner resigns from Sidewalk Labs

Last Updated Oct 21, 2018 at 7:40 pm EST

This undated photo provided by Sidewalk Toronto shows the eastern waterfront of Toronto. Ontario's former privacy commissioner has resigned from her consulting role at a company that is preparing to build a high-tech community at Toronto's waterfront, citing concerns that a privacy framework she developed is being overlooked. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - Sidewalk Toronto *MANDATORY CREDIT*

TORONTO – Ontario’s former privacy commissioner has resigned from her consulting role at a company that is preparing to build a high-tech community on Toronto’s waterfront, becoming one of many to step away from the project due to concerns about how personal information and data will be managed.

Ann Cavoukian resigned from Google sister company Sidewalk Labs on Friday after she said a privacy framework she developed was being overlooked when Sidewalk Labs said it couldn’t guarantee people’s personal information would be protected.

“What I wanted was a wake up call,” said Cavoukian of her resignation.

She wrote a letter of resignation following a meeting earlier in the week when Sidewalk Labs said while it agrees to follow her framework, called Privacy by Design, it cannot ensure that other companies involved in the project would do so as well.

“I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance,” said Cavoukian in the letter.

Last October, Waterfront Toronto announced it had chosen Sidewalk Labs to present a plan to design a high-tech neighbourhood for the Quayside development, which is along Toronto’s eastern waterfront.

Since then, the Alphabet Inc.-backed project has faced controversy because critics have complained that few details have been shared including how data will be collected, kept, accessed and protected.

“It became clear that Sidewalk Labs would play a more limited role in near-term discussions about a data governance framework at Quayside,” said a statement from Sidewalk Labs.

“Sidewalk Labs has committed to implement, as a company, the principles of Privacy by Design. Though that question is settled, the question of whether other companies involved in the Quayside project would be required to do so is unlikely to be worked out soon, and may be out of Sidewalk Labs’ hands.”

Cavoukian said she resigned to “press” Waterfront Toronto to guarantee it would protect people’s personal information.

Cavoukian said a crucial feature of Privacy by Design is that when personal information is collected by surveillance cameras and sensors, any personally identifying data is removed or “anonymized” immediately.

Cavoukian said personally identifying data is not just a person’s name, and there is information that can be indirectly identifying — such as the specifics of where a person is travelling — that can be linked to that individual.

“You must de-identify data. Waterfront Toronto can do that, so that’s why I’m pressing upon them to do it,” she said.

Waterfront Toronto released a statement that said it will go beyond meeting all Canadian privacy legal requirements in the project.

“Waterfront Toronto has great respect for Dr. Cavoukian and Privacy by Design, the excellent tool she has developed based on best practices. Waterfront Toronto also recognizes and respects the obligation to adhere to Canadian privacy laws, which go beyond Privacy by Design,” said the statement.

Cavoukian’s resignation comes after a member of the panel guiding the plans stepped down earlier this month after she developed “deep dismay” and “profound concern” over a lack of leadership from Waterfront Toronto with ensuring public trust around privacy.

In a letter, TechGirls Canada founder Saadia Muzaffar said she is stepping away from her role with the Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel because Waterfront Toronto has shown “apathy and a lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust” and has dodged questions around privacy and intellectual property.

For months Sidewalk Labs have been dogged with questions around privacy and ownership of intellectual property. Dan Doctoroff, the chief executive officer of Sidewalk Labs, said at the Fortune Global Forum on Wednesday that he hoped concerns had been quelled after his company released its privacy proposal for the Quayside development on Oct. 15.

The plans show Sidewalk Labs does not intend to own the data it gathers in public spaces and instead will relinquish control of it to an independent organization to be set up and called the Civic Data Trust. The Trust will set the rules around data use, make it open and accessible to people while offering privacy protection and ensure that Sidewalk Labs does not receive any special status or rights when it comes to data access.

The plan mentions little of intellectual property, which has been a prime concern for many in Canada who have spoken out against foreign technology companies infiltrating the country and using Canadian talent to build intellectual property that ends up sending revenue to other nations.

Cavoukian said there is an increasing number of data breaches and cyber security attacks around the world that has led to a growing concern over privacy and personal information.

“Privacy is consistently at the highest rate of concern I’ve ever seen in over 20 years that I’ve been in this business,” she said.

“When you have such high levels of concern associated with privacy and a total deficit of trust — trust is non-existent — you have to go to great lengths to assure the public, your personal data is safe.”