Weeks after revelations that Sidewalk Labs was looking to redevelop an area 30 times larger than its original 12-acre Quayside proposal, the CEO is now warning that the company could pull out of the project altogether if transit isn’t built.

Adding to the turmoil, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) released an open letter earlier this week, addressed to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Premier of Ontario Doug Ford and Mayor of Toronto John Tory. The letter threatens litigation if the Quayside project is not reset.

“At the end of the day, if there is no light rail through the project, then the project is not interesting to us.”

A reset would require all three levels of government to institute regulations governing the collection, ownership and use of data acquired from sensors in the Quayside community, before a request for proposal is delivered, Michael Bryant, executive director and general counsel for the CCLA told CBC.

“We are getting closer and closer to Sidewalk Toronto being in a position where they are going to start building a part of the city that amounts to a constitution-free zone, where they are able to invade people’s privacy and collect information about them in circumstances where normally you would need a warrant to get that stuff,” Bryant told CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Wednesday.

“We think that there’s some really fundamental issues that we don’t want to get lost amid the glitz and the glamour and, frankly, the sort of sexiness of many of these proposals,” Brenda McPhail, CCLA director of privacy, technology and surveillance told The Globe and Mail.

On Thursday, Sidewalk Labs CEO, Dan Doctoroff, spoke to The Canadian Press and revealed that Sidewalk Labs itself may lose interest in the project, noting transit infrastructure as a deal breaker.

Doctoroff’s most recent comments about the partnership with Waterfront Toronto, which is looking to introduce heated sidewalks, affordable housing, and autonomous vehicle infrastructure, comes weeks after proposals of a transit rail line were leaked to the Toronto Star. The plans also included the funding of a transit line by Sidewalk Labs in exchange for a cut of property taxes and developer fees.

“At the end of the day, if there is no light rail through the project, then the project is not interesting to us, to be perfectly honest,” Doctoroff told The Canadian Press. “I think if we ultimately get to a place where we conclude that achieving the lofty ambitions that we and Waterfront Toronto and their government constituents have established for this project are not possible, then obviously, we would be foolish to continue.”

An anonymous source from within the Ontario government told The Canadian Press the government was unaware of Sidewalk Labs’ ambitions, and said that the government would never approve such a plan.

“We take seriously concerns surrounding data and privacy and continue to follow this closely and work with Waterfront Toronto and the other orders of government to ensure this process takes place in an ethical and accountable fashion,” the press secretary for the federal Minister of Infrastructure and Communities told The Globe and Mail.

Doctoroff said he was not surprised by the developments, as he feels they are a part of bringing innovation to a swath of land he has portrayed as being underdeveloped and “dramatically suboptimal without the expansion of mass transit.”

He also noted that he believes the project’s funding can accelerate the development of transit for the community. He added, there are many other transit ideas that Sidewalk Labs would consider, but is uncertain about which ones it could pursue. While Doctoroff said he did expect challenges with the Quayside project, he said the company’s traffic analysis has unearthed some surprises.

“We weren’t aware of the mobility issues and how severe they are,” he said. “We didn’t know enough about the site a year ago or more than a year ago.”

In emails to The Canadian Press, representatives for the provincial and municipal governments noted that Sidewalk Labs’ proposal has yet to be approved by the municipal, provincial or federal government.

In his interview, Doctoroff revealed that Sidewalk Labs is now expecting to develop “at most” 10 to 15 percent of the overall project. The company said it is open to working with partners, despite having said it is willing to fund and build the project itself if it can’t find companies to partner with.

“That is what we think is necessary simply to prove to others that what we are talking about makes sense,” he said. “We are prepared to take that risk, but I think others are prepared to do that with us. We have had a lot of expressions of people who would like to invest alongside of us.”

The CEO also discussed how Sidewalk Labs intends to collect and use residents’ data – one of the project’s most contentious issues. Observers of the project, including CCLA, have expressed serious concerns over the amounts of information that could be gathered.

Sidewalk Labs has proposed to establish an independent civic data trust which would establish rules around data use. This would make its data collection activity open to the public, while offering privacy protection to ensure Sidewalk Labs does not obtain an exceptional status when it comes to accessing data. The company has not revealed what data could be collected in Quayside, but Doctoroff said people in the neighbourhood will probably be able to pull out from having their data shared for “some things.”

“The issue with data in public space is it is very hard to get people to opt in or opt out because you just don’t know who they are and they are moving through,” he said. “Therefore, our belief – and it will have to get approved – is that is a public policy question that ultimately needs to be interpreted by this independent trust.”

The inner workings of these proposals are set to be revealed in a report expected to be drafted and submitted in the coming weeks. The report will be subject to approvals from three levels of government, and Doctoroff said the report will contain information on how much the company aims to profit from the Quayside project.

Image courtesy Waterfront Toronto.

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