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Warning of 'Surveillance Capitalism' Nightmare, Big Tech Investor-Turned-Critic Pushes Toronto to Abandon 'Smart City' Waterfront Development

"It is a dystopian vision that has no place in a democratic society."

Quayside

Quayside is a proposed 12-acre "smart city" in Toronto that has sparked concerns about privacy and data collection. (Photo: Sidewalk Toronto/Medium)

American venture capitalist Roger McNamee, an early investor in big tech companies including Google and Facebook, urged Toronto officials this week to abandon a proposed "smart city" waterfront development—adding his voice to a growing chorus of people who have raised privacy and data collection concerns about the project.

"The 'smart city' project on the Toronto waterfront is the most highly evolved version to date of what Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls 'surveillance capitalism.'"
—Roger McNamee, big tech investor

The proposed 12-acre Quayside neighborhood is a project of Sidewalk Toronto, a partnership between Sidewalk Labs—a subsidiary of Google's parent company, Alphabet—and Waterfront Toronto, which was established by the governments of Canada, Ontario, and Toronto to shepherd development alongside Lake Ontario.

Quayside would consist of both retail and housing, and serve as a sort of trial run for Sidewalk Toronto, which ultimately aims to construct similar developments that would supposedly "achieve precedent-setting levels of sustainability, affordability, mobility, and economic opportunity" across more than 800 acres of the city's Eastern Waterfront.

In a letter Tuesday to members of the Toronto City Council's executive committee—who discussed the project at a meeting Thursday—McNamee wrote that "the 'smart city' project on the Toronto waterfront is the most highly evolved version to date of what Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff calls 'surveillance capitalism.'"

Zuboff explained the term surveillance capitalism in a March Democracy Now! segment about her book on the topic, published in January:

Surveillance capitalism claims private human experience for the market dynamic as a free source of raw material that is translated into behavioral data. These data are then combined with advanced computational abilities to create predictions—predictions of what we will do, predictions of our behavior, predictions of what we will do now, soon and later. And these predictions are then sold to business customers in a new kind of marketplace that trades exclusively in human futures.

McNamee wrote in his letter to Toronto officials that with the Quayside project, "the quantity of data collected will be unprecedented, as will be the potential for abuse. There are currently few restrictions on the commercial exploitation of private data, leaving consumers with no hope of safety and little recourse for harm."

The letter expresses alarm about how those behind the project could employ technology to not only surveil everyone who passes through the so-called "smart" neighborhood but also use that data "to replace democracy with algorithmic decision making." According to McNamee, "It is a dystopian vision that has no place in a democratic society."

Sidewalk Labs, in a statement, said the claims in McNamee's letter "represent a fundamental misunderstanding" of the company's approach to the project. The statement noted that Sidewalk Labs has "publicly committed to not use any facial recognition technology whatsoever in the Quayside project"; proposed that data collection be overseen by an independent, government-sanctioned data trust; and "pledged never to sell personal information from the project or use it for advertising in any way."

However, McNamee is far from the first to issue such warnings about the Quayside project—which, as The Guardian reported Thursday, "has been dogged by fears of data harvesting, privacy concerns, and an overall lack of transparency."

In early October, entrepreneur Saadia Muzaffar resigned from the project's advisory panel, citing a lack of transparency by Waterfront Toronto and saying the organization showed "apathy and a lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust."

Later that month, Ann Cavoukian, the former privacy commissioner of Ontario, also resigned. "I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance," she wrote in her resignation letter.

Jim Balsillie, former chairman and co-CEO of the Canadian multinational Research In Motion (now BlackBerry), warned in an op-ed for The Globe and Mail last October that "'smart cities' are the new battlefront for big tech because they serve as the most promising hotbed for additional intangible assets that hold the next trillion dollars to add to their market capitalizations."

Balsillie also presented a scathing critique of how this particular project has been handled. "It is a colonizing experiment in surveillance capitalism attempting to bulldoze important urban, civic, and political issues," he concluded. "Of all the misguided innovation strategies Canada has launched over the past three decades, this purported smart city is not only the dumbest but also the most dangerous."

The fresh criticism of Quayside this week comes as Waterfront Toronto will reportedly delay a planned vote on the development, according to The Guardian, "to ensure it can undertake an 'accountable, transparent, and extensive' evaluation of Sidewalk Labs' plans, which are expected to be submitted in the coming weeks."

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