TORONTO — The Canadian Civil Liberties Association launched a lawsuit Tuesday against all three levels of government involved in a bid to bring a high-tech neighbourhood to Toronto’s downtown core.
Federal, provincial and municipal governments are all named in the notice of application filed by the civil rights and freedoms group, which has been threatening since March to launch legal action over the yet-to-be-approved Quayside project.
The suit also names Waterfront Toronto, a local organization that’s partnered with Google sibling company Sidewalk Labs to develop five hectares of waterfront land into a “smart city” with high-tech sensors built into nearly every aspect of its infrastructure.
A notice of application announcing the suit alleged the project is replete with potential privacy breaches that violate Canadians’ constitutional rights.
The association called for a complete “reset” of the partnership with Sidewalk Labs.
“Before developing or implementing the Quayside project, the respondent governments have the duty to develop a digital data governance policy to address the capture, collection, control, management, ownership, risks, exploitation and residency of the data collected,” the notice of application reads. “Instead, the respondent governments have abdicated their duty…have violated or will violate Canadians’ personal and collective privacy rights.”
The provincial and federal governments named in the suit did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the legal action, which also names private citizen Lester Brown as a complainant alongside the association.
A spokesman for Toronto Mayor John Tory said Sidewalk’s final proposal for Quayside will go through “full public scrutiny” for a variety of issues, including those raised in the lawsuit.
Waterfront Toronto said in a statement that since it has not yet received Sidewalk Labs’ master plan for Quayside, it cannot assess the claims in the association’s suit.
Word of the suit comes weeks after the association sent letters to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the Toronto mayor warning it was considering legal action over the Sidewalk collaboration.
The Quayside project, which still needs further approvals from all three levels of government, involves bringing affordable housing, heated sidewalks, so-called raincoats for buildings and autonomous vehicle infrastructure to the city’s waterfront.
It has been mired in controversies over data and privacy concerns due to the vast amounts of information it could collect through phones, sensors and other devices imbedded in the neighbourhood’s infrastructure.
The suit seeks to nullify Sidewalk Labs’ partnership agreement with Waterfront Toronto, alleging the local development organization does not have the authority to create a digital governance policy for the Quayside project.
The suit also makes numerous arguments centred on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, alleging that the collection of personal data infringes on a host of civil liberties.
“The data capture will be or will likely be carried out without the meaningful informed consent of its target individuals and for inappropriate purposes,” the notice reads.
It also claims that the “non-consensual surrender by the state to Sidewalk Labs and/or others of private data” will discourage, limit or even make it impossible for individuals to assemble and associate freely and anonymously to pursue legitimate social goals, personal and public activities and civic engagements.
“This curtails or negates critical freedoms in a democracy where collective behaviour plays an important political and social role,” it reads.
Although Sidewalk Labs was not named in the suit, its chief executive officer said the association was being too hasty with its legal action since the project remains in the proposal stage.
“I think what surprised me a little bit was that nobody was sort of prepared to give us the benefit of the doubt,” Dan Doctoroff said in a speech Tuesday at the Canadian Club in Toronto.
Doctoroff said Sidewalk has promised not to use any data for commercial or advertising purposes, adding that an unspecified independent regime will be responsible for managing the data. He said that while he doesn’t know the details of the lawsuit, Sidewalk takes issues around privacy and surveillance seriously.
The CCLA is not the first to raise issues with the project.
In late February, about 30 concerned citizens, including longtime Quayside critics Bianca Wylie and Saadia Muzaffar, formed an organization called Block Sidewalk, calling for the end of the project.
After it was revealed in February that Sidewalk was hoping to collect a cut of the city’s property taxes and development fees in exchange for funding a light rail transit line, some city councillors also expressed reservations about the project.
Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press