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Google’s Sidewalk’s bet is a nightmare for the privacy conscious

If you’re concerned about whether Google is listening to you through your phone or smart speaker, soon enough you’ll have to worry about lampposts having ears, or at least if your live in Toronto.

For those who have not been keeping up-to-date with the Canadian tech scene, Google’s Sidewalk Labs is currently working in partnership with Toronto to demonstrate the vision of tomorrow; the smart city. Plans are still being drawn up, though it looks like two neighbourhoods will be created with a new Google campus bang in the middle.

The Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) hope to create the city of tomorrow and will be governed by Waterfront Toronto, a publicly-funded organization. In a move to seemingly appease the data concerns of Waterfront Toronto, Google has now stated all the systems would be run by analysing data, but Sidewalk Labs will not disclose personal information to third parties without explicit consent and will not sell personal information.

This is the first bit of insight we’ve had on this initiative for a while. Having secured the project in 2017, Sidewalk Labs has been in R&D mode. The team is attempting to prove the business case and the products, though it won’t be long before work is underway. Assuming of course Google is able to duck and weave through the red-tape which is going to be presented over the next 12-18 months.

The most recent development is a series of white papers which are addressing numerous topics from sustainable production plans, mobility, data protection and privacy and the envisioned usecases. If you have a spare few hours, you can find all the documentation here.

Of course, there are plenty of smart city initiatives around the world but what makes this one interesting is that the concept of ‘smart’ is being built from the foundations. This is a greenfield project not brownfield, which is substantially easier. Buildings, street furniture and infrastructure can be built with connectivity in mind.

This is the challenge which other cities are facing, lets take London as an example. Construction on the London Underground system started in 1863, while the London sewage system was plumbed in between 1859 and 1865. The city itself, and the basic layout, was established in 50 AD. Although there are creative solutions to enhance connectivity, most cities were built in the days before most could even conceive of the internet.

The Quayside and Villiers West neighbourhoods will be home to almost 7,000 residents and offer jobs to even more, anchored by the new Google campus. The buildings will offer ‘adaptable’ spaces, including floor plates and sliding walls panels to accelerate renovations and reduce vacancies. It will also be incredibly energy friendly, featuring a thermal energy grid which could heat and cool homes using the natural temperature of the earth.

But onto the areas which most people in the industry will be interested in; the introduction of new technologies and access to data.

High-speed internet connections will be promised to all residents and businesses, intelligent traffic lights and curbs will be deployed to better regulate traffic, smart awnings will be introduced for those into gimmicky technology and the neighbours will be designed to allow for an army of underground delivery robots to function.

Autonomous driving is one technology area which fits perfectly into the greenfield advantage. The complications of creating a landscape for autonomous vehicles in older cities are great, but by building up the regions with connectivity in mind many of these challenges can be averted. Not only can the introduction of self-driving vehicles be accelerated, but ride-sharing (Zipcar) or hailing (Uber) alternatives can be assisted while other options such as e-scooters are more realistic.

Such is the ambition nurtured in the Google business, if there is a crazy idea which can be applied to the smart city concept, Sidewalk Labs have probably factored it into the design and build process.

And now onto the data. This is where the project has drawn criticism as Google does not necessarily have the most glistening record when it comes to data privacy and protection. Small print littered throughout various applications has ensured Google is never too far away from criticism. In fairness, this is a problem which is industry wide, but a cloud of scepticism has been placed over any initiative which has data as the fuel.

The latest announcement from Google/Sidewalk Labs focuses on this very issue. Sidewalk Labs will not sell any personal information, this data will not be used to fuel the advertising mechanisms and it will not disclose this insight to third-parties. Explicit consent would have to be provided in any of these circumstances.

Whether these conditions will be up to the standards defined by Waterfront Toronto remains to be seen. This body has the final say and may choose to set its own standards at a higher or lower level. Anonymity might be called into play as many activists have been pushing. This is not a scenario which Google would want to see.

While expanding into new services might seem like an attractive idea, if this expansion can be coupled with additional access to data to fuel the Google data machine, it is a massive win for the internet giant. Let’s not forget, everything which Google has done to date (perhaps excluding Loon and the failed Fiber business) has paid homage to the advertising mechanisms.

Fi offers it interesting data on customer locations, the smart speakers are simply an extension of the core advertising business through a new user interface and Android allowed Google to place incredibly profitable products as default on billions of phones and devices. If Google can start to access new data sets it can offer new services, engage new customers and create new revenues for investors.

Let’s say it can start collecting data on traffic flow, this could become important insight for traffic management and city planners when it comes to adding or altering bus routes. This data could also be used to reduce energy consumption on street lights or traffic lights; if there is no-one there, do they actually need to be on? It could also help retailers forecast demand for new stores and aid the police with their work.

These ideas might not sound revolutionary or that they would bring in billions, but always remember, Google never does anything for free. This is a company which seems to see ideas before anyone else and can monetize them like few others. If Google is paying this much attention to an idea or project, there must be money to be made and we bet there is quite a bit.

But this is where Google is facing the greatest opposition. Because it is so good at extracting insight and value from data, it is one of the companies which is facing the fiercest criticism. This will be the most notable the further afield Google spreads its wings. It seems the world is content with Google sucking value out of personal data when it comes to search engines or mobile apps, but pavements, lampposts and bus stops might be a step too far for some.

Of course, criticism might disappear when jealousy emerges. The hardcore privacy advocates will never rest, but most simply don’t care that much. Privacy violations will of course cause uproar, but if there is a fair trade-off, most will accept Google’s role. If Google can prove these neighbourhoods not only improve the quality of life, but also offer advantages to entertainment and business (for example), this initiative could prove to be very popular with the general public, governments and businesses.

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