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De-identifying data at the source is the only way Sidewalk can work

By Ann Cavoukian
De-identifying data at the source is the only way Sidewalk can work

When Sidewalk Labs first approached me to be a consultant three years ago, I told them that if they hired me, I’d be happy to help them, but I could become a thorn in their side if they didn’t deliver the strongest privacy. They said fine—they wanted to embed my concept of Privacy by Design into Toronto’s new smart city, ensuring that any data collected must be de-identified and anonymized immediately at the source.

I said I’d hold them to it. In a smart city, technologies are gathering information 24-7. There’s no opportunity for people to consent or revoke consent, so we must protect their personal data for them

Sidewalk agreed. I believe they always thought Privacy by Design was an essential part of the project. The challenge came when Sidewalk decided to create the Urban Data Trust, which would democratize control of the immense amount of data they’d planned to collect. Members of the trust would include other tech companies, Waterfront Toronto and various levels of government. I had no problem with that. However, Sidewalk also decided that it would not, or could not, compel other members of the trust to de-identify their data. They said they’d “encourage” them. I’ll never forget the meeting where they announced it. The minute they said that, I knew I had to resign. There’s no way to lead this initiative as a voluntary choice. Personal information is a treasure trove. Everybody wants it.

And everyone has the potential to abuse it. The possibilities are endless. Think of how an employer could track you. Maybe you were late for work and your employer wants to know why; they could track your car or your smart watch. Likewise, think of what your insurer might do with tracking information. Data captures so much information about you; there are so many unintended consequences of third-party usage. And it could all happen without your knowledge or consent, without any notice, without anything.

I live in Toronto, and the last thing I want is a smart city of surveillance. I’m on the International Council of Smart Cities, and so many of these new spaces—in Shanghai, in Dubai—are cities of surveillance. Privacy forms the foundation of our freedom. You cannot have free and democratic societies without it. It’s no accident that Germany is the world leader in privacy. They looked at the abuses under the Third Reich and said “never again.” Privacy isn’t about secrecy. It’s about retaining personal control over your information—over your own life.

Luckily, the morning after I resigned from Sidewalk, I received a call from Waterfront Toronto, asking me to come work with them. Together, we’re pushing for data de-identification, at source. Companies may not like it, but I did promise to be a thorn in their side. It’s all about preserving our privacy—preserving our freedom.


This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.

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