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Physical Space, Digital Capture

Physical Space, Digital Capture

Written by
Nabeel Ahmed
April 2nd, 2019

Nabeel Ahmed examines how Big Tech is working to take over the physical world.

Physical Space, Digital Capture

Photo: Joshua Sortino

As our lives become increasingly digitized, as our communities migrate to social media, we have become increasingly aware of the perils of unregulated technology. Whether it is predatory personal surveillance, privacy leaks, identity theft, fake news, echo chambers, or distorted messaging, there is greater public awareness than ever before about the challenges we face online.

Yet while the public is finally opening its eyes to the dangers of Silicon Valley’s online offerings, the tech giants are a step ahead. Just as we begin to come to grips with the dangers of surveillance capitalism in the virtual world, Silicon Valley is setting its sights on control of the physical realm. The techlash has entered the zeitgeist—now it must enter our relationships with smart homes and smart cities.

How Silicon Valley operates on our screens may merely be a preview of how it will operate on our streets: with a blatant disregard of human rights, an arrogant disdain for public institutions. What we need now is to develop public literacy and have public conversations about the techno-chauvinism encroaching on our neighborhoods.

All of our public spaces are now considered untapped (or “un-disrupted”) business opportunities—a shift that threatens the very idea of public space. Uber is trying to privatize public transit; Airbnb is trying to turn every home into a commodity; Huawei is building gadgets for robo-cops and installing cameras for super-surveillance; Amazon-owned Whole Foods is watching and suggesting groceries; so-called “rewards” programs like Air Miles are tracking everything you buy. Our phones track everything we do and everywhere we go, even when we don’t consent. And these are only the schemes we know about. Our off-screen lives have become an entirely new marketplace for Big Tech. But this time, they’re coming for the public sphere, where it is not just individual citizens but entire communities and cities that are fodder for profit. All told, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to opt out of the surveillance economy emerging around us.

There are at least three major problems with Big Tech’s conquest of the physical world. First, there is no consent: it is much harder to sign out of your neighbourhood than it is to sign out of your Facebook account. Second, our laws and regulations are too old and inadequate for new technology-enabled products and services. Because the law hasn’t caught up to the power of Big Tech, the profiteers have adopted the mantra of “permissionless innovation,” which basically amounts to shoot first, ask questions later. Third, there is very little public knowledge and almost no public debate about how public and private spaces are being refashioned to suit Big Tech.

Just as we begin to come to grips with the dangers of surveillance capitalism in the virtual world, Silicon Valley is setting its sights on control of the physical realm.

The notion of consent is important because it is often taken for granted in public spaces. When you use an online service, the standard now is to opt-in, usually by providing explicit consent by signing up, agreeing to a set of terms and conditions, or at the very least clicking “yes” on a pop-up. This system is flawed and distorted, but it exists. When you walk in the street, you opt in to certain things and provide implicit consent to having your photo taken or having someone approach you to sell a product or ask for something. As new sensors and trackers are embedded across our physical infrastructure, often unobtrusively, it becomes much harder to know what information is being gathered and used, by whom, and for which purposes. The mandatory use of the Presto payment system across Toronto’s public transit is a prime example. As Brenda McPhail of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has explained, the smart payment card means that anonymous travel is now all but impossible.

This becomes even more fiendishly complicated when the nature of the space changes, such as in the context of privately owned, publicly accessible spaces, or in private spaces that many must pass through regularly for a number of reasons. For example, you can change whether you buy from Amazon or Ebay, but it’s not so easy to stop using the closest neighbourhood supermarket. The presence of a smart home device such as Google Home or Alexa now means that when you visit your friends, your voice is being recorded and tracked, regardless of whether you consented to that or not.

The so-called “smart city” risks becoming the totalitarian expression of Big Tech conquering the physical world. While the term can refer to a broad range of uses and visions for technology in cities, nowadays it is predominantly applied in a top-down, often corporate avatar. In such smart cities, permissionless surveillance and fantasies of control truly become all-encompassing—technology is installed on every street, every door, every window, every pole, every pipe, every awning. Benches, garbage bins, buses, and cars are all part of the so-called “Internet of Things,” connected to the internet and constantly transmitting data back to their owners. The most powerful and insidious agents are people themselves, equipped with advanced yet vulnerable minicomputers, cameras, and microphones on their smartphones, smart watches, smart bands, and even smart glasses. The triple whammy is that not only are you a data point, but you are also a prolific supplier of further data points in the computational fetish at your own expense.

As new sensors and trackers are embedded across our physical infrastructure, often unobtrusively, it becomes much harder to know what information is being gathered and used, by whom, and for which purposes.

In the techno-utopian smart city, there is no action that is not recorded, no touchpoint that is not transmitted to a server for processing, analysis, and perpetual storage. If this sounds familiar, that’s because it is: Big Tech has perfected the art of surveillance capitalism, which Google has set the bar for. Google uses Gmail to track who you communicate with and what you say. Maps and location services log everywhere you go, how you get there, when you leave and arrive, and what mode of transportation you use. Google search records everything you’re curious about, including potentially sensitive information. The Chrome browser relays data on everything you do online. And for everything else, there’s the Android operating system that records data from all installed apps, even without users’ consent.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that Google is eager to dip into the potential for profit that smart cities offer. Their first major target happens to be Toronto, in the shape of the “neighborhood of the future,” which their sister company, Sidewalk Labs, is planning at Quayside on the waterfront.

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The logic of the Quayside project is that embedding information and communication technologies into the physical world will enable better management and control of the city and all its inhabitants. This logic rests on two assumptions: first, that enough data can be collected, and second, that it can be effectively repurposed for management and control. While current pilot projects may be limited to installing some sensors and playing around with data and applications, the logical outcome of Google’s Toronto experiment is a public realm in which data collection is ubiquitous. What little privacy we have left is gravely endangered, as all of our infrastructure takes on an extractive role. In the absence of comprehensive data governance policies, the key questions surrounding the ownership, use, and security of data on Toronto and its residents remain unanswered.

As recent events have revealed, however, surveillance and privacy are far from the principal issues surrounding Quayside. What is really at stake is the right to the city and local democracy. Since October 2017, when Sidewalk Labs was announced by Waterfront Toronto as the “Innovation and Funding Partner” for Quayside, the governance and public engagement of the project have proven to be wholly inadequate. The project is being carried out in a partnership between Waterfront Toronto, a tri-governmental corporation, and Sidewalk Labs, with the latter given unprecedented leeway to not only shape but also extract revenues from public property. The process has been criticized heavily throughout the last sixteen months, with multiple Waterfront Toronto board members and advisors either resigning or being fired, even as both Waterfront and Sidewalk Labs carry on with feel-good hyper-optimistic marketing masquerading as public engagement. As Andrew Clement, member of Waterfront’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel and professor emeritus at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information, said: “There’s in some ways a fatal flaw in this process because it’s not based in an appropriately adequate understanding of the challenge that you’ve taken on.”

In the absence of a regulatory framework and clear answers about the right way forward, the private sector will operate with impunity, quite possibly putting people at risk.

Our institutions, laws, and regulations are not prepared for what Big Tech is throwing at them. The story of innovation, disruption, and regulation is by now a familiar cycle. A private actor, usually a tech company, will launch a new product (such as a ride-sharing platform), which will operate outside the law and upend the settled order. At that point, the government will frantically try to learn about what happened and develop policies to address this new reality. But too often these reactionary policies do little more than sanction whatever “disruption” the tech company has already introduced. In the absence of a regulatory framework and clear answers about the right way forward, the private sector will operate with impunity, quite possibly putting people at risk. Government may never catch up, and if it does, it’s often too late.

A new product may be more convenient and cheaper than the existing product, but it may not have been tested and evaluated to ensure that it is safe. There may not even be recognition that there is a new product that should be tested—such as Airbnb in its early days, or its predecessor CouchSurfing. For much of the data that is collected, it is not clear how it should best be collected, where it should be stored, how it can be used, and who has access to it. In addition, there are few guidelines on the wholesale deployment of algorithms to speed up or replace human decision-making, and on how to ensure these algorithms do not perpetuate ongoing injustices and discrimination. In particular, accountability regarding technology in public space can often be opaque, unclear, or complicated, given the reliance on public private partnerships.

This points to the need for much greater public education and discussion about the nature of technological capture today. The public and policymakers are largely uninformed about the potential pitfalls of, and alternatives to, smart city utopias. There can be no meaningful consent unless it is based on full prior knowledge, and we simply do not have enough knowledge about what these utopias entail. We need to know what we’re getting into, as residents who have democratic rights, as taxpayers who pay for services and privileges, as consumers who need to be protected from unscrupulous actors, and, ultimately, as human beings who have basic inalienable rights.

These new forms of unfreedom, these new corporate and statist threats to our individual and collective liberties, must be understood and discussed fully. This discussion centers around the role of government, whose job it is to protect the public interest. It also highlights the role of the media in generating and sustaining a public discourse, and the role of journalists who document and help us make sense of the world around us. What is really at stake here, after all, is our democracy.

We have begun to navigate our movement across the internet with caution. We must also begin to navigate our neighbourhoods with equal care.

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