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Google plan for data-driven ‘smart city’ sparks privacy, democracy concerns

In the Canadian city of Toronto, city officials are negotiating a project that will give a section of the city’s waterfront to the US tech giant Google. Under the arrangement, Google affiliate Sidewalk Labs will build and run a high-tech “radical mixed-use” site called Quayside. This “smart city” plan involves creating a neighbourhood “from the internet up”, powered and served by data; with sensors monitoring everything from air quality to pedestrian traffic, even the flushing of toilets. Amenities like garbage disposal and goods delivery are to be coordinated and driven by AI and robotics.

The proposed parcel of land isn’t huge, but it’s not insubstantial either – it covers about half-a-square-kilometre, and there are already suggestions it could be extended.

For Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet — the parent company of both Google and Sidewalk Labs — it’s the culmination of a long-held ambition.

“Give us a city and put us in charge,” he once famously declared.

Following the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal, some, like Dr Jathan Sadowski at the University of Sydney, worry about the implications of putting a private tech company in charge of both urban development and urban life.

“What’s in it for them? It’s data,” he says. “It allows them to get really massive amounts of granular data about urban life and urban environments.”

“You’ll have a city that’s based on, or built around, proprietary platforms, data harvesting, corporate control.”