The fight against Google’s smart city

Brian Barth, Washington Post:

In October 2017, Sidewalk Labs, a Google-affiliated company looking to make urban life more streamlined, economical and green by infusing cities with sensors and data analytics, announced plans to build the world’s first neighborhood “from the Internet up” on 12 acres of the Toronto waterfront, an area known as Quayside. Sidewalk aims to, for example, build an “advanced microgrid” to power electric cars, design “mixed-use” spaces to bring down housing costs, employ “sensor-enabled waste separation” to aid recycling and use data to improve public services.

So far, so good. But one group, Tech Reset Canada (TRC), has a problem with this:

TRC’s founders are not opposed to the concept of smart cities in principle. Their concerns revolve around the collection and commodification of urban data and whether that occurs through a democratic process or via corporate fiat.

As it is, technological innovation has far outpaced lawmakers’ ability to establish the rules of the road, whether in the context of Google and Facebook’s immensely profitable endeavor to commodify Internet browsing activity or Internet-connected assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, which eavesdrops on your every conversation while awaiting your commands. But critics of the smart city industry say that it brings the disconnect between policy and digital intrusions on privacy to another level.

Very interesting. Who owns the data collected in the running of a smart city? How will that data be used?

So far, the virtual world has been something we opt into — giving up various rights in the terms of service agreements we hastily click closed — and can opt out of if we so choose. It’s one thing to willingly install Alexa in your home. It’s another when publicly owned infrastructure — streets, bridges, parks and plazas — is Alexa, so to speak. There’s no opting out of public space, or government services, for which Sidewalk Labs appears eager to provide an IT platform.

I am a fan of smart cities. But there is an Orwellian side. This is a great read.