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Smart Cities for Dumb Humans

The privacy consultant for Google’s ‘smart city’ just resigned. Is it possible that the company doesn’t really care about protecting privacy?

Jacob Siegel
October 24, 2018

An interesting thing happened recently in the ongoing saga that is Google’s attempt, through its subsidiary Sidewalk Labs, to build a private, fully surveilled microcity inside of Toronto. The privacy expert Google had hired to assuage concerns over the dangers of a neighborhood built to collect data on its inhabitants, has stepped down.

A year into Google’s efforts to build a mini “smart city” on Toronto’s waterfront, Ann Cavoukian, the former privacy commissioner for the province of Ontario, announced that she was leaving her role as a consultant for the project. “I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance,” she explained in a letter. “Your personal information, your privacy is critical,” Cavoukian has said. “It is not just a fundamental human right. It forms the foundation of our freedom.”

It’s commendable, this repudiation of Google on behalf of fundamental rights but also rather astounding if we’re being honest—and charitable—to imagine a privacy expert believing that Google had ever planned to build anything other than a smart city of surveillance. Cavoukian’s involvement in the Quayside project, named for the Toronto neighborhood where the proposed neighborhood will be built, had focused on the importance of masking the identity of people connected to the harvested data. “I felt I had no choice because I had been told by Sidewalk Labs that all of the data collected will be de-identified at source,” she said.

This is how Google makes money: It collects data on people, places, and patterns of activity, on which it then runs advanced algorithms designed by some of the smartest and most innovative coders and engineers in the world, to create targeted advertising or to optimize efficiencies in processes. The whole digital economy runs on the creation of these information monopolies. The technologist Jaron Lanier calls them “siren servers;” the networked data collections extracted and controlled by companies like Google and Facebook that, like earlier resource monopolies, produce massive concentrations of wealth and power.

An article from August in Canada’s Globe and Mail, details how the “smart city” design optimizes and monetizes the information it collects and why that might actually be a net cost to the city in which it operates.

The project is intended to be a neighbourhood with advanced technology—for instance, using sensors to capture information about users’ activities—which means that intellectual property is a crucial part of its value. To some, that value could be enormous as cities around the world make better use of data in urban planning. Sidewalk Labs envisions countless possibilities, from robotic waste-sorting systems to predictive heat-and-electricity-use programs.

Everything from the design of Quayside’s buildings, to the unique ways it collects data, to the further innovations that could be developed by harnessing so much data, has the potential to generate IP that could be licensed globally—or become the source of further innovation by Canadian companies.

Toronto resident and open government advocate Bianca Wylie has been warning about the need for more robust governmental checks on Google’s smart city project from the very beginning. Wylie, the co-founder of Tech Reset Canada, describes her role as an “advocate for the public good in the innovation economy.” Last November she appeared on the popular Canadian TV program, The Agenda with Steve Paikin, and got into a memorable exchange with the recently resigned Cavoukian where she laid out why the kind of individual privacy protections Google was offering and has since proven unwilling to provide, were inadequate and unrealistic. In an emailed statement to Tablet, Wylie said this about Cavoukian’s resignation:

Fearing the collapse of the project, Sidewalk Labs issued a panicked data proposal knowing that it was out of step with Ann’s position. They pretend to engage people but continue to steamroll anyone in their path. We need a horizontal approach to data governance and data policies because data has many economic and noneconomic effects. By focusing only on privacy, we can find ourselves plugging just one of many holes, which is in effect plugging nothing.

Because siren servers operated by companies like Google depend on access to bulk data—the largest possible quantities of raw information—masking the identity of the people behind the data, while not irrelevant, borders on a distraction. The raw data is like the grass a cattle rancher depends on to graze a herd. It’s not ultimately what’s being sold, and customers are only interested in their cuts of beef, but it’s indispensable to the final product. Similarly, all the smart algorithms and advanced artificial intelligence applications to set the temperature in your house, deliver the right search results, find the best sales, warn you of impending health complications, or save energy costs at your business—every optimized facet of our big optimized world depends on getting that data. It’s the fuel on which the whole thing runs.

“The 21st-century knowledge-based and data-driven economy is all about IP and data. Smart cities are the new battlefront for big tech because they serve as the most promising hotbed for additional intangible assets that hold the next trillion dollars to add to their market capitalizations,” wrote Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie, earlier this month in an article about Quayside.

Of course, profit is what’s in it for the tech companies pushing for smart cities but how about the rest of us? We get competent governance, stable polities, and the effective provision of basic services. Better living through optimization and smart cities that promise to lower the transaction costs and inevitable frictions of human existence.

Democratic governments think they can hire out for the basic service they’re supposed to provide, effectively subcontracting the day to day functions of running a city and providing municipal services. Well, they’re right, they can, but of course they’ll be advertising why they’re not really necessary and in the long run putting themselves out of a job. For us regular citizens the appeal is even simpler: We want our trash picked up on time, clean streets, reliable public transportation, super fast deliveries of exactly the right products. When our elected governments can’t get even the simplest things done, it seems reasonable to turn to the optimizers par excellence in Silicon Valley. Just ask any New Yorker who counts on the subway whether, over the past year of incessant service delays, breakdowns and buck-passing by city and state government, they wouldn’t have traded some privacy for efficiency, given up some democracy for a bit of benign authoritarianism, if it only made the damn trains run on time. The tradeoff comes in the loss of power over the institutions we have to live inside. The mayor may be a bum who you’d like to throw out but you get the chance to do that every so often, to hold your city council accountable, vote on new laws and generally participate in the whole motley gamut of representative governance.

If you just think back to the congressional hearings over Facebook’s role in the U.S. presidential election, it’s clear that we’re already drifting towards an underlying expectation that the tech giants accept responsibilities as an unofficial arm of government. “In a lot of ways Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company,” future internet world president and current Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said. Former Google executive chair, Eric Schmidt, has talked about the excitement in the company about “all the things you could do if someone would just give us a city and put us in charge.” After the deal with Toronto was struck, the feeling at Google according to Schmidt was, “Oh my God! We’ve been selected. Now, it’s our turn.”

Whether or not most people consciously want to transition from democracy to some kind of digital technocracy, we seem to be collectively urging it on by asking the tech companies to take on more responsibility for the regulation of public life.

In the end, you can have your privacy or your smart city but you can’t have both.

Jacob Siegel is Senior Editor of News and The Scroll, Tablet’s daily afternoon news digest, which you can subscribe to here.

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