QP Briefing: Government outlines policy principles for smart cities

By: David Hains

Ontario has wrapped up its formal consultation on a data strategy, with the government hinting at a renewed emphasis on privacy as concerns mount over rights and responsibilities in the digital sphere.

Tech advocates expressed support for an approach that carefully considers consumer protection in the evolving digital space, and looking to other jurisdictions to find best practices around the world.

Those concerns were backed up by the completed public consultation, where 79 per cent of the 770 respondents believe data about people and businesses needs better protection, and 83 per cent feel businesses do an inadequate job explaining what they do with data.

“Our government recognizes that the tremendous economic potential of emerging data technologies needs to be balanced with thoughtful and robust protections for the privacy and personal data of all Ontarians,” stated Government and Consumer Services Minister Bill Walker. He pledged that the government will act with both urgency and prudence. “Our government is taking swift action to ensure that the protection of personal privacy and private information is paramount in the data economy, and we hope that our municipal and federal partners will do the same.”

Walker told QP Briefing that the next steps for the government will be to name a task force on the issue, adding that a potential chair and deputy chair have been contacted about the roles. More outreach with stakeholders will occur, he added, and the government is looking to finalize its strategy in Fall 2019.

The emphasis on an updated data strategy comes amid concerns of the role and influence of major tech companies like Facebook and Google, which have been the subject of recent governmental hearings in Canada and the U.S. Locally, Google has also been the subject of significant attention on data governance due to its proposed Quayside development on Toronto’s waterfront through its subsidiary Sidewalk Labs.

That project, which has stirred up controversy and criticism, promises to be a full-fledged neighbourhood built “from the internet up,” but skeptics have expressed concerns on how citizens’ rights will be protected in that SmartCity context.

The government also outlined principles that would govern projects like Quayside.

According to the ministry statement, they include:

  • Guarantee that Ontarians’ privacy and personal data are protected
  • Ensure that Ontarians are the primary beneficiaries and valued partners in the opportunities created by the project
  • Create responsible and good governance systems that are democratic, accountable, and transparent
  • Enact leading, best technical practices that ensure chosen technologies use open software and open standards, and are secure, interoperable, locally procured, flexible, durable and scalable
  • Educate the public on the risks associated with the project and provide meaningful opportunities for local residents to participate and engage in the creation of the smart city

This would mark the first formal policy framework for smart cities, although the Sidewalk Labs Quayside project proposal was first announced in 2017.

In a statement from Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Keerthana Rang, the company said, “We welcome the provincial government’s data strategy. This project has generated an active and healthy public discussion about data privacy, ownership, and governance in cities. We hope that our project will set a new standard for responsible data use, as articulated in our data proposals we released last year. We look forward to working closely with the City, the Province and Waterfront Toronto on this important issue and the policies that follow.”

The issue of how data will be governed and citizens will be informed of their rights has become increasingly prevalent, with representatives from disparate groups urging caution before proceeding.

Information and Privacy Commissioner Brian Beamish informed QP Briefing in an email that he was encouraged by the government’s consultation thus far, including the focus on building a policy framework to guide smart cities. He also noted that the government pledged to keep him informed and involved as discussions on the issue continue.

But he gave some advice for what he would like to see in the policy framework for smart cities. “Additional measures to ensure effective governance are needed such as independent oversight to ensure compliance with the rules,” he stated, highlighting the need for adequate accountability. “Individuals should have a right to complain if they think that their privacy rights have not been respected.”

He noted what he saw as an additional possibility for the government on the issue, and one that could fit within the anti-red tape mandate of the PCs. “This may also be an opportunity for Ontario to consider introducing its own private-sector privacy law to avoid duplication of oversight for projects involving both the public and private sectors.”

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has been a critic of the process surrounding the Sidewalk Labs smart city project. CCLA executive director Michael Bryant told QP Briefing by phone that the government is playing catch-up. “They seem to be a lot more interested in privacy and data rights than their predecessor,” the former Grit attorney general said.

But he noted a dissonance between the stated goals in the government’s digital strategy consultation and the Sidewalk Labs project, which he says has mostly been governed around a sense of self-regulation. Asked what he’d like to see next, he said he wanted to learn more about concrete policies. “The more detail, the better.”

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