/ Lilian Radovac / 10 am Thu, Aug 2 2018
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  • Toronto's aural panic: why we need digital rights now

    Toronto's aural panic: why we need digital rights now

    Last week, my city became a garbage fire. Within 48 hours of a mass shooting on Toronto's Danforth Avenue, City Council had passed a motion to purchase the American acoustic surveillance system ShotSpotter, making Toronto the first Canadian municipality to adopt the technology. As Americans already know, the system is designed to monitor "at risk" (read: poor and black) neighbourhoods for potential gunshots, which it geolocates and pushes to local law enforcement personnel for a substantial fee. Of course, ShotSpotter would have done nothing to prevent the tragedy on the Danforth and there are real questions about its effectiveness as a gunshot detection system, but why let facts get in the way of a rash political decision?

    After fierce pushback by black scholars and activists, civil liberties and digital justice organizations and a groundswell of concerned citizens, myself included, the motion was amended to require that the ShotSpotter contract be reviewed by Ontario's Information and Privacy Commissioner (IPC) before being awarded. Which sounds good, except there are currently no clear guidelines for how such a review should proceed and no requirements that the IPC's findings ever be made public. When asked about this, the IPC pointed to a statement they made before the ShotSpotter vote directing citizens who feel "that their personal information has been compromised or a significant breach has, or is occurring, [to] file a privacy complaint with our office." This would presumably only happen after the technology is implemented.

    Meanwhile, a day after the City Council vote, Toronto's mayor John Tory announced his intention to seek "strong mayor" powers akin to those held by the mayors of New York City and Chicago. His power play was quickly upstaged when Ontario's new Conservative government moved to slash the number of councillors serving the Greater Toronto Area almost in half, just weeks before a scheduled municipal election. This surprise move has thrown the local democratic process into chaos as the province blazes forward with cuts to social services and progressive economic initiatives, which raises serious questions about how citizens can effectively respond to problematic legislation and potential civil liberties violations.

    In the midst of all this, Sidewalk Labs has just received the green light to move forward with a development agreement for Sidewalk Toronto, a massive smart cities project that will redevelop a swath of Toronto's eastern waterfront that has itself raised a slew of concerns about data privacy, ownership, and public consultation since being announced last October. Headed by New York's former deputy mayor Dan Doctoroff, Sidewalk Labs is promising the city $50 million in return for the right to build a data-driven neighbourhood that will involve everything from housing to public transit to social and medical services. On the day the agreement was announced, a board member of the public waterfront planning agency Waterfront Toronto apparently resigned her position in protest.

    The score so far: surveillance capitalism: 4, Toronto: 0.

    What the Toronto garbage fire makes painfully clear is that digital rights guarantees can't be left to local governments and the American companies they do business with. Canadian cities urgently need national legislation that will protect the privacy rights of all Canadians at all times and provide clear guidelines for public sector procurement of new digital technologies. As analyst Bianca Wylie tweeted after the ShotSpotter vote, "after a day of this I'm [as] convinced as ever that we need to halt all non-critical government technology procurement because we're fundamentally unequipped to do it and need to reorganize our approach."

    To this end, a coalition of three Canadian digital justice organizations--Tech Reset Canada, the Digital Justice Lab, and the Centre for Digital Rights--has launched a campaign and petition to demand Digital Rights Now. It calls on the Canadian government to create a digital rights strategy as part of an ongoing data strategy consultation, which would involve changes to antiquated federal privacy laws and a commitment to data minimization to protect citizens from unnecessary and unjust privacy intrusions. It also asks Ontario residents to contact the IPC to register their concerns about the ShotSpotter purchase and highlights the questions citizens should demand answers to. As the coalition's authors explain,

    Canadians have not signed up for surveillance capitalism as a social norm. Outdated models for data ownership, consent, privacy, and more are leaving us vulnerable. It is negligent to continue going forward into a digital economy without social consent regarding how technology impacts our lives.

    What we need now is to make sure our governments hear these concerns and act accordingly. Luckily, Digital Rights Now is on it but they need our help.

    To sign the Digital Rights Now petition, click here.

    To learn more about Digital Rights Now, click here.


    Dr. Lilian Radovac is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto's Institute of Communication, Culture, Information & Technology and the director of the Alternative Toronto digital community archive project.

    (Image: nolifebeforecoffee, CC-BY)

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