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Why Google's Toronto 'Smart City' Project Is Running Into Hefty Local Resistance

Panorama of the urban skyline including the CN Tower. Point of view from Ontario Place during the daytime. (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa—LightRocket via Getty Images) Roberto Machado Noa—LightRocket via Getty Images

A project headed up by Alphabet, the parent company of Google, and aimed at creating a “smart city” on Toronto’s waterfront, is facing stiff resistance from local officials whose chief concern is how residents’ personal data will be handled.

Behind the project are Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet subsidiary, and Waterfront Toronto, a Canadian government body and public stewards of the city’s waterfront revitalization. On Tuesday, Sidewalk made public its intentions to invest $50 million for the next planning stage of the deal.

But there have been notable rumbles of local discontent, calling the entire project into question.

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As part of the project, residents could be tracked by sensors embedded in traffic lights and garbage-disposal units. Privacy watchdogs have raised concern over who will control such sensitive digital information. To calm these worries, Waterfront Toronto has agreed to negotiate intellectual property ownership and digital privacy rights based on a set of “guiding principles” emphasizing people’s control over their own information.

But worries remain.

Monthly delays surrounding the release of local development plans coupled with the loss of key personnel have only made matters worse. The CEO of the Waterfront Toronto, a staunch supporter of Sidewalk, resigned in July. And this week, a real-estate developer left the board because she was uncomfortable with Alphabet as a partner.

However, the obstacles may just prove teething problems inherent to such a colossal new task. They bring to the fore the challenges present when for-profit technology companies try to work alongside municipal agencies responsible for safeguarding citizens’ privacy.

If pulled off, it will be Alphabet’s first application of urban design and technology to tackle modern-day issues, such as expensive housing, traffic congestion and environmental sustainability.

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