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Privacy expert Ann Cavoukian resigns as adviser to Sidewalk Labs

Privacy by Design creator and former Ontario privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian
Laurel L. Russwurm/Wikimedia Commons
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Ann Cavoukian, a world-leading privacy expert, has resigned as an adviser to Sidewalk Labs on its proposed Toronto smart city development. Cavoukian sent a letter advising the company of her resignation Friday.

In the letter, she expressed concerns regarding Sidewalk Labs recent digital governance proposals, specifically, the possibility that not all personal data would be de-identified at the source—a concern she said she raised with Sidewalk Labs early last month. Sidewalk Labs told The Logic it is committed to de-identifying data, but that it can’t control what third-parties do.

“With all due respect,” she wrote about data not being de-identified at source, “that is not acceptable.”

“If personally identifiable data are not de-identified at source, we will be creating another central database of personal information (controlled by whom?), that may be used without data subjects’ consent, that will be exposed to the risks of hacking and unauthorized access,” she said in her statement. “As we all know, existing methods of encryption are not infallible and may be broken, potentially exposing the personal data of Waterfront Toronto residents! Why take such risks?”

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Until now, Cavoukian has been a consistent advocate for Sidewalk Labs’ proposed smart city project, speaking publicly about how it could benefit Canada and serve as a model for cities around the world.

“At yesterday’s meeting of Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, it became clear that Sidewalk Labs would play a more limited role in near-term discussions about a data governance framework at Quayside,” Sidewalk Labs said in a statement.

“Sidewalk Labs has committed to implement, as a company, the principles of Privacy by Design. Though that question is settled, the question of whether other companies involved in the Quayside project would be required to do so is unlikely to be worked out soon, and may be out of Sidewalk Labs’ hands.

“For these reasons and others, Dr. Cavoukian has decided that it does not make sense to continue working as a paid consultant for Sidewalk Labs. Sidewalk Labs benefited greatly from her advice, which helped the company formulate the strict privacy policies it has adopted, and looks forward to calling on her from time to time for her advice and feedback.”

In her resignation letter, however, Cavoukian described the discussions around Privacy by Design—the philosophy that privacy to be taken into account throughout the whole engineering of a project—differently. She said she believes the project has strayed from those ideals and “bears no resemblance to Privacy by Design.”

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“At yesterday’s meeting of the Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel, Alyssa [Harvey Dawson, general counsel and head of legal at Sidewalk] told [the company’s digital advisory panel] in no uncertain terms that the proposed Civic Data Trust would have broad authority, including decisions relating to the de-identification of personal data,” she wrote in her statement, which was provided to The Logic by Sidewalk Labs. “Alyssa indicated this group would be ‘encouraged’ to de-identify personally identifiable data, but that the decision would be theirs to make.”

Reached by phone Saturday, Cavoukian said that Sidewalk Labs confirmed to her its commitment to privacy by design, but that there were other parties whose approaches to privacy the company cannot control.

“Now is the time to walk the talk, and I think what we’re all learning is it’s not just up to Sidewalk Labs. Waterfront Toronto has to step up. I think we have to put some pressure on them as well.”

She also confirmed that she will be speaking to Waterfront Toronto.

“They have to step up and also ensure that whoever the other players are, that they will abide by privacy by design,” she said.

The resignation comes just two days after Sidewalk Labs CEO Dan Doctoroff said at an event put on by Fortune in Toronto that the company’s proposal for a data trust “should answer the vast majority of questions” for “all but the most extreme advocates.”

Sidewalk Labs contacted Cavoukian to advise on its smart city development ahead of the announcement of its partnership with Waterfront Toronto in October 2017. She served as Ontario’s information and privacy commissioner from 1997 to 2014. She is currently the distinguished expert-in-residence at Ryerson University’s Privacy by Design Centre of Excellence, and also does privacy consulting for companies.

“My role is to ensure that privacy is protected—that the data collected from the sensors are not privacy invasive at all,” Cavoukian told The Logic in an interview in April. “In fact, I want the privacy identification, any identifiers, to be completely severed at the point of contact, at the source, so that then you’re going to have data from the sensors but they’re not going to be personally identifiable data, meaning they’re not going to be linked to any individuals.

“Privacy is going to be embedded by design—that’s why they contacted me,” she said.

At Thursday’s meeting, however, Cavoukian was visibly displeased with material concerning when the company would and wouldn’t collect personally identifiable information, shaking her head and putting her hand up numerous times in an attempt to address panel members. She was never called upon.

Sidewalk Labs faced tough questions from panel members regarding its plans for the digital components of Toronto’s Quayside neighbourhood. Some panel members expressed concerns that Sidewalk Labs did not present its documents far enough ahead of consultation with the panel, which the organization apologized for at the start of its presentation.

Last week, NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus called on the federal government to disclose more information about its meetings with Sidewalk Labs or “hit the pause button” on the project. Earlier in October, The Logic reported that Ontario’s auditor general was conducting a value-for-money audit on Waterfront Toronto, including an examination of the proposed smart city development.

More to come.