Sidewalk Labs' quiet plan for Canada's banks to manage a national digital ID for health care and housing
[I'm delighted to welcome Lilian Radovac back for another excellent piece on the digital surveillance shenanigans in Canada, which aren't always as showy as their stateside counterparts, but are every bit as worrying. In this piece, Radovac reveals the buried plan for a finance-sector managed, all-surveilling National ID card buried in the latest massive wedge of largely unread documents from Google spin-out Sidewalk Labs (previously) that is building a controversial, privatised city-within-a-city in Toronto -Cory]
In Sidewalk Toronto news, Sidewalk Labs has finally released its Master Innovation and Development Plan Digital Innovation Appendix. As with the 1,524 page MIDP before it, there's a lot to read in the DIA but a few excerpts already stand out.
To start, the Appendix has an appendix called the Quayside Digitally Enabled Services List, which compiles the services that Sidewalk Labs wants to buy or build for the development. Number 48 on that list is an entry for “Distributed Digital Identity Credentials," or Digital IDs, which it says it will purchase from a third party. Distributed credentials were mentioned in the MIDP but despite its length that document didn't provide much in the way of detail. There are more clues in this one and, if the Globe and Mail's recent exposé of the company's "Yellow Book" freaked you out, you probably won't find them reassuring.
The services list states that Digital IDs will provide "interoperable access to public and private services through a unified delivery mechanism," and specifically mentions "income verification" for affordable housing alongside things like parcel delivery and transit payment. This suggests that people who are eligible for the small number of below-market-rate units in the development would have to register for a Sidewalk authorized Digital ID to apply for them.
Since Sidewalk Labs will buy rather than build the Digital ID system, it looks to a range of prototypes—and potential third party vendors—for inspiration. For example, on p. 458 of the DIA proper, under a subheading for "Multi-sector collaboration across Canada," there's a link to a 2018 white paper by the Canadian Bankers Association. A section titled "Harnessing the Power of the Private Sector” starts with this paragraph:
Canada’s highly developed private sector can create an effective and innovative digital ID system without the cost and risk of building a large, centralized system from scratch. Currently Canada’s identification model is decentralized, with isolated systems holding different attributes of an individual’s identity. In Ontario, for example, the Ministry of Health issues health cards, the Ministry of Transportation issues driver’s license and banks and other financial institutions manage an individual’s financial information. Yet, there is no linkage or connection between these separate attributes of data to be able to identify someone.
It gets worse. The DIA also cites this 2018 pamphlet by Interac Corp., the recently restructured consortium of banks that created the Canadian debit card payment system. Note that the DIA claims that Interac Corp. is already providing services for health care and immigration, although this isn't actually the case. But they would like to.
The gist? A private sector incursion into public service administration, a whole lot of pearl-clutching about health care fraud, and this:
[A] digital identity system that works for health care should also be designed to work equally well for all other government services. We’ll take a close look at some of these service categories in upcoming white papers.
Sidewalk Labs wants us to think their plan is a Canadian version of DECODE and that Toronto is the new Barcelona. They're not. This actually looks a lot like the infrastructure for a national digital austerity program premised on an inflated fear of abuse rather than the improvement of health and social services. That the DIA release came less than 48 hours after the Project Nightingale leak and the Conservative government's announcement of a new Ontario Digital Health Strategy is also interesting timing, to say the least.
Torontonians aren't a particularly expressive bunch but we really, really like our public health care system. The Big Banks? Well, not so much. And while we do enjoy using our debit cards, I'm fairly certain that most of us don't want the financial sector anywhere near our doctor's offices or other social service providers, smart city or no. Let's hope the Waterfront Toronto Digital Strategy Advisory Panel makes this clear when it reports on the DIA in February.
Lilian Radovac is an assistant professor at the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology at the University of Toronto and the director of the Alternative Toronto digital archive project.
(Image: Hernán Piñera, CC BY-SA 2.0)
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