Smart City Human Rights Concerns

A Google company wants to build a controversial sensor-laden smart neighbourhood in Toronto. We’re concerned about what this means for human rights.

The smart city project has been advertised as an easy fix to the headaches of city life by using as much data as it can. But questions have been raised about whether Toronto’s residents want to be the test subjects for this project in the first place and, importantly, what mass data collection means for human rights.

At the end of October 2019, Waterfront Toronto, a tri-government agency, has an opportunity to stop the project.

 #Blocksidewalk, a local grassroots organization, is calling for the project to be stopped in its current form. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has filed a lawsuit against 3 levels of government over the project. Various individuals and organizations continue to speak out with their concerns about big data companies moving off our screens and into our streets.

At Amnesty International, the project raises flags about mass surveillance and protecting: 

  • the rights to privacy, equality, and non discrimination 
  • the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of association.

Increased data collection and mass surveillance can harm groups who are already marginalized (e.g. immigrants, refugees, BIPOC* communities, sex workers) and replicate oppressive power structures by compounding systemic issues like racism and transphobia. Surveillance can also have a chilling effect that undermines activism and political dissent, damaging social and political movements.

Waterfront Toronto, the group that gets the final say over what happens with the project has the opportunity to terminate their controversial partnership with Google on October 31st.

The Sidewalk Labs project won’t just have a local impact. If it goes ahead as planned it could have serious consequences, including being uncritically replicated in countries around the world.

People whose rights will be affected should have control over whether and how new technologies are used.

Raise your voice now and let decision-makers know that human rights must come first.


*BIPOC = Black, Indigenous, People of Colour


For more information on smart cities and human rights in tech, see:
Amnesty International blog post: Smart cities: dreams capable of becoming nightmares
Amnesty International’s collaboration with Access Now to produce the Toronto Declaration in support of non-discrimination and equality in using technology.