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Sidewalk Labs wants to turn this stretch of undeveloped land into a high-tech new neighborhood. (Sidewalk Labs Photo)

When Sidewalk Labs announced plans to create a high-tech innovation district in Toronto, some privacy advocates heard alarm bells go off. After all, Sidewalk is under the Alphabet umbrella and its data-hungry sister company, Google, could make a lot of hay with the information collected by sensors that will be embedded in the neighborhood’s infrastructure.

Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff. (Sidewalk Labs Photo)

Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff knows it’s a concern and wants to put fears to rest before breaking ground on the project. In an interview with GeekWire, Doctoroff said he wants to “have a dialogue” with key stakeholders to create a data and privacy approach that “enables us to gain the benefits of using data more effectively but, on the other hand, ensures that that data is not used against the interests of the people who live, work, or visit there.”

That dialogue is taking shape in the form of a year-long public comment period with Toronto residents and leaders that will create a blueprint for the project. At the end of the year, if all of the stakeholders accept the final plan, Sidewalk Toronto will break ground on Quayside, a 12-acre district on the Lake Ontario waterfront, with plans to grow beyond that.

Sidewalk Labs laid out an ambitious plan to integrate technology into every layer of urban life in a 196-page response to a Request for Proposals (RFP) created by Toronto’s government. Toronto’s RFP solicited proposals to develop the stretch of unused waterfront land and selected Sidewalk as its partner. Part of the plan includes “a distributed network of sensors to collect real-time data about the surrounding environment.”

Researchers estimate that kind of high-tech monitoring infrastructure can save cities billions in energy bills, but those savings could come at a cost to citizen privacy. There isn’t a strong regulatory framework in place to govern how data is collected in cities because the technology is so novel.

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Doctoroff knows that and hopes that the Toronto project can become a testbed, not just for smart city innovations but for government oversight, as well. He says that in order to engender trust and create a pilot for the city of the future, it is important “not to use the data for commercial purposes but instead only to use it for the quality of life.”

When pressed, Doctoroff said that while data sharing isn’t in Sidewalk Labs’ ethos, he can’t say with definitive certainty what will happen with the information collected in Quayside. That’s because, at this stage, it isn’t clear who will own the data.

“There may be alternate structures that we don’t control, that public entities control,” he said. “We don’t know. That’s part of the conversation.”

If Toronto residents aren’t satisfied with the privacy solutions that Sidewalk Labs comes up with at the end of the public comment period, the project could be abandoned. As part of the agreement with Sidewalk, Toronto has the ability to walk away from the Quayside initiative at any time.

“We’ve been very clear that we do believe this is a fundamental question that is going to have to be addressed to people’s satisfaction and that we’re prepared to go through a process to work through these issues,” Doctoroff said.

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