‘Web of data’ collected by smart city tech stokes privacy fears

Municipal tech leaders in Ottawa say privacy should be top of mind in smart city initiatives

smart cities
smart cities
Editor's Note

This piece is part of an OBJ series on smart city technology. To read about efforts to make Ottawa a smart city, check out our intro piece here.

Apps that do things such as alerting drivers when a parking spot opens up nearby make life easier for urban dwellers, proponents say ​– but some critics wonder what will happen to individual privacy in a world where a vast network of cameras, sensors and other devices is capable of watching us virtually every minute of the day.

“Little by little, we are collecting more and more data about more and more of our activities,” notes Teresa Scassa, the Canada Research Chair in Information Law and Privacy at the University of Ottawa.

“There’s a whole web of data that is being collected in our cities, and it all raises governance questions, but it doesn’t seem to attract as much attention as it really should.”

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As a member of an advisory panel aiming to ensure new technologies used in the revival of Toronto’s waterfront are safe, ethical and respect data privacy, Scassa has had a front-row seat to examine the issues that arise as government agencies – as well as private corporations – continue to find more and more ways of keeping a constant electronic eye on citizens.

As an example, she points to Presto cards, noting the Toronto Transit Commission and other public transit agencies in the Greater Toronto Area have handed over personal data about the cards’ users to police on dozens of occasions.

“Most people would think, ‘Hey, if it helps catch criminals or reduce crime, then so much the better,’” Scassa says. “But the problem is that it’s a surveillance layer and if you don’t have the appropriate safeguards in place, then it becomes problematic. It has an adverse impact on individuals’ autonomy and dignity and on their civil liberties as well.”

Scassa’s role on the Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel has also given her an up-close view of the controversy surrounding Sidewalk Toronto, Google sister company Sidewalk Labs’ plan to build a high-tech, ultra-connected community on the city’s lakefront.

Last October, former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian resigned from her consulting role at Sidewalk Labs over concerns the company couldn’t guarantee people’s personal information would be protected. Other critics have also expressed worries about what will be done with all the data collected at the property.

A recent national survey conducted by Hamilton’s McMaster University suggests many other citizens share their fears. The survey found found that 88 per cent of Canadians are concerned about their privacy in smart cities, with almost a quarter saying they are extremely concerned.

Marc Ren​é de Cotret, who leads Ottawa’s Smart City 2.0 initiative, says residents have every right to expect their privacy won’t be invaded by the next generation of smart city technology.

“It’s something you have to take very seriously,” he says, adding the city’s fundamental principle is that every citizen “needs to have full control of their data. If you want to stay anonymous, you should be able to do that.”

For example, Ren​é de Cotret says when the city unveils a new app later this spring designed to send alerts to residents about situations such as parking bans and changes to garbage collection, it will give users the option of blocking the GPS tracking function.

He says the city regularly consults both in-house and external privacy law experts to ensure it adheres to all regulations.

“We’re very mindful of that as part of the process we go through,” he says.

“All kinds of things could go wrong if we’re not careful.”

Scassa says governments appear to be taking the issue seriously, noting the province recently launched online consultations on ways to ensure citizens’ privacy is protected in the growing “big data” economy.

“I think we need to be very careful and try to stay on top of these things because it is moving very quickly and there’s a huge thirst for this data,” she says. “All kinds of things could go wrong if we’re not careful.”

Grant Courville, vice-president of product management and strategy at Kanata-based BlackBerry QNX, which makes cutting-edge software used in cars and other devices, agrees. Government and industry need to work together to create strict guidelines for how information on users can be used and by whom, he says.

“We just have to have to make sure the access to the data is properly controlled,” Courville says.

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