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Venture capitalist calls for end to Sidewalk Labs development


June 6, 2019
By Ian Bickis, The Canadian Press

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TORONTO—A prominent technology investor is adding his voice to those calling on Toronto to abandon the proposed Sidewalk Labs development on the city’s waterfront.

Venture capitalist Roger McNamee, who was an early investor in Facebook and other technology giants, writes in a letter to Toronto’s city council executive committee ahead of a Thursday meeting that the project is a “dystopian vision that has no place in a democratic society.”

McNamee, who has been a vocal critic of the tech industry in recent years over data and privacy concerns, says the smart city project is a highly evolved version of surveillance capitalism that gives too much power and control to the project’s backer Alphabet Inc., parent company of Google.

“The quantity of data collected will be unprecedented, as will be the potential for abuse. There are currently few restrictions on the commercial exploitation of private data, leaving consumers with no hope of safety and little recourse for harm,” he said in the letter.

Sidewalk Labs spokeswoman Keerthana Rang said McNamee doesn’t seem to know the project very well, pointing out his concerns around facial recognition technology in the development—something Sidewalk Labs has said publicly it isn’t planning to use.

“While we welcome public debate about the project, Mr. McNamee does not seem very familiar with what Sidewalk Labs is actually proposing,” she said by email.

Sidewalk Labs’ vision for the 4.8-hectare site known as Quayside includes building up to 3.3 million square feet of mostly residential space. The neighbourhood would incorporate numerous types of sensors, cameras, and other monitoring systems that would strip personal information before the data is used to make the area run more efficiently.

Sidewalk Labs has proposed that data collected in public spaces be overseen by a independent data trust, though questions remain on how such a trust would work.

“We believe that this district will in fact set a new standard of privacy and forward-thinking data policy, and we look forward to presenting more details of our plan in the coming weeks,” said Rang.

Earlier this week a group called BlockSidewalk said it sent a letter to the Waterfront Toronto board on behalf of over a thousand supporters, urging it to not even assess the development plan Sidewalk Labs is expected to submit this month.

The group says the structure of the assessment process is fatally flawed, and that it will be taking its campaign to city council’s executive committee on Thursday when an update report on the project will be presented.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association also launched a lawsuit in April against Waterfront Toronto as well as the municipal, provincial and federal governments that are involved in the Waterfront collaboration to oversee the city’s lakefront development.

The suit alleges that the project is full of potential privacy breaches that violate Canadian constitutional rights.

Criticism of the project comes as technology giants including Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon face antitrust investigations in the U.S. over their aggressive business practices and increased scrutiny in Canada.

Waterfront Toronto is expected to vote on whether to move forward with the Sidewalk Labs plan in December or January, several months later than initially expected.

A spokesperson for Waterfront Toronto said the delay will allow the board to do a full, thorough, and extensive evaluation process of what’s expected to be a large, complex and unique plan.

News from © Canadian Press Enterprises Inc. 2019