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26 April 2019

Sidewalk Labs tries colorful signage to distract from civil-lib lawsuit

Less than a week after Canada’s Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) announced that it was going to raise hell to get the Google-led Sidewalk Labs smart city project in Toronto ‘reset,’ Sidewalk Labs has announced that it is planning on pushing ‘visual language’ to help be more transparent about what exactly is going on in a smart city.

We very much doubt that the CCLA is going to back down now, as this vaporware doesn’t solve the organization’s main complaints – that the city, regional, and national governments have failed to protect the citizens appropriately. A change to push signage is not going to remove the suspicion that many people hold over Google’s involvement – that the advertising firm is so interested in smart cities because the market could provide it with a truly unshakeable foundation for some Orwellian vision of the future, where adverts follow people around cities, or are pushed in such a way that they begin to directly influence behavior.

But there is very much a need to have some sort of visual language that citizens can rely on to understand the space they occupy. In order for these systems to not feel intrusive, citizens have to understand what is there. Using the argument that a citizen has consented to a facial tracking and analytics system by simply leaving their house does not have good political mileage. Citizens need to be able to opt-out or avoid the functions that they want no part of, and to do this, they need to understand the cities that they occupy.

Currently, street signs and the design of public spaces can convey how to move through a city, and contextual information like street lighting and camera systems might clue you in to other elements – with broken windows and rampant litter also highlighting that you might not want to dwell in an area for too long.

Of course, many believe that a citizen’s smartphone is going to be the conduit that links the person to the smart city around them, but keeping a phone out at all times to understand what functions might be active is not practical, nor is it a good user experience. In the same vein, however, is that throwing up dozens of signs that indicate active camera, analytics, or sensing systems, is going to leave a city space looking cluttered – bedazzled in these clues.

The current trend for hiding smart city technologies, keeping them out of sight, is also at odds with this need for a language. The vast majority of consumers aren’t going to be able to distinguish between a conventional CCTV unit and one that might be running some fancy network-edge analytics package, so how then do you distinguish between these capabilities?

Obviously, a loudspeaker system isn’t going to do it, nor would filling a city with digital signage that blares out the current operational status. It seems unlikely that you would get much farther with some sort of mass advertising system, considering the often goldfish-like attention span and memory retention exhibited by some members of the populace, but as you run through the options, you do seem to come to the conclusion that there  is not a tidy way of doing this.

This leaves Sidewalk Labs’ proposal, of colored hexagonal signs that convey the technology in the area and the data they are collecting. Yellow denotes identifiable information, while blue means that the data collected is not rich enough to identify a person. Black signs with white text and icons show the sort of application being powered by the technologies, hidden out of sight. Logos of the companies involved are also going to be included, and if Bristol is anything to go by, those logos are going to be completely obscured by profanity, tags, and promotional stickers, within a few months.

So what are the checks and balances that a citizen should be protected by, if they want no part of a smart city application? Well, the CCLA would like to think that organizations such as itself are a viable option, although in the case of Sidewalk Labs, it could probably have kept itself under the radar with a better PR manager. At every turn, it seems to have lacked an answer for the questions leveled against it, and politicians were too quick to glom on to the perceived benefits of having their name attached to a shiny new project.

This is why the Alphabet subsidiary, and Google sibling, is being embroiled in these allegations, wherein the CCLA argues that the Waterfront Toronto project had sold out citizen’s rights “to the global surveillance mammoth of behavioral data collection, Google.”

Michael Bryant, the executive director of the CCLA, went further in the claims, saying that “The Google-Waterfront Toronto deal is invalid and needs to be reset. “These agreements are contrary to administrative and constitutional law, and set a terrible precedent for the rest of this country. Unlawful surveillance is wrong whether done by data profiteers or the state. We all deserve better from our federal, provincial and municipal governments.”

Brenda McPhail, the CCLA’s director of privacy, technology, and surveillance, had written in an earlier open letter that “the problem is, the last year and a half of consultations haven’t been asking whether Torontonians want Google’s sister company, Sidewalk Labs, to create a sensor-laden ’test bed’ on the Waterfront, either in the Quayside Neighborhood or ultimately across the Portlands. They have just been discussing what it should look like and promising us it will be awesome.”

The organization heading up the project, Waterfront Toronto, says that Sidewalk Labs hasn’t yet submitted a final plan, with Toronto’s mayor promising that this plan will get full public scrutiny when it is submitted. Leadership resignations in the organizations encouraged local press digging, which unearthed documents that suggested Sidewalk Labs was not transparent enough. It is now something of an activist pastime to pile onto the project.