MyData signs on first Finnish operator as battle for consumer data rights rages

MyData is not a company which many would have heard of, but it is one everyone should start to take notice of.

The concept of MyData is quite simple. This is a non-profit organisation which acts as the middle-man to collect and manage consumer’s personal information and data. It is a single point of contact where a consumer can manage the flow, depth and breadth of personal data which is flowing across the digital world.

Companies who are betting big on the data-driven world of tomorrow will not like organisation like MyData. This is an organisation which aims to take control of the data-driven digital world, and hand it to the consumer.

This might sound like blue-sky-thinking, but in signing-up Finland’s first operator, Vastuu Group, the idea is starting to spread.

“In today’s data-driven world it is important that the use of personal information is fluent and human-centric,” said Vastuu Group’s Deputy CEO Mika Huhtamäki. “Vastuu Group is a founding member of MyData Global network. We want to build co-operation between different MyData operators and enhance sustainable data-based business.”

For the consumer, this is a very interesting and beneficial idea.

As it stands, the world is not educated on the dangers of the internet. There are still a vast number of unknowns, both in terms of how users could endanger themselves and what the consequence of lost/stolen/copied personal data actually is. Because of these unknowns, few people are appropriately guarded when engaging with the digital economy.

For example, your correspondent has recently downloaded an app called ‘WalkIn’, which allows the user to digitally stand in the queue at restaurants which do not allow bookings. It is a very good idea, though only when researching this article did your correspondent dig into the terms and conditions to understand where the collected personal information was heading and what it was being used for.

In this example, there was little consequence. WalkIn Limited is a company run out of Manchester, and while it collects far more information than necessary for the app to perform effectively, it does not look to be engaging in any nefarious data sharing practises (although this is very difficult to judge on the surface).

This illustrates a point. How many applications have been downloaded by an individual without checking into who the developer is, what information is being collected and where it eventually ends up? We suspect 99.99% of downloads (if not more) would fall into this category.

Firstly, the user is not aware of breadth, depth and type of personal information which is being handed over. And secondly, as few people could remember every single app they have ever downloaded, tracing this information down to understand the consequences will be incredibly difficult.

With companies like Vastuu acting as guardians of personal information for the consumer, it is a logical step to improve the safety of the internet and the digital economy. With the creation of a new business model, “Authorisation as a Service”, companies like Vastuu will be a central point for that consumer, allowing data to be tracked and for the companies who want to make use of it, to be held accountable.

Theoretically, this is an attractive proposition for the health of the digital consumer, but for it to work, the developer community will also need to be engaged. This might be a bit trickier.

Data-driven technology companies are difficult beasts to pin down, especially those in the app economy. Few people would recognise the name of developer organisations, but these companies control the personal information of unknown numbers of people. Such is the embryonic stage of regulating the digital economy, the concept of auditing and reporting on personal information which is being held is almost non-existent. These companies have to prove they are safe-guarding it properly, but few people peer inside the walled gardens.

This dynamic is largely by design. Facebook builds incredibly detailed profiles on its users to serve the advertiser, and it is not alone here. Sky in the UK has a platform called AdSmart which allows you to target adult women, with two children, living in a south-east London, second-time mortgaged semi-detached home with a two-year old BMW in the drive. Other developers sell information onto parties where ambitions are a bit more nefarious than promoting the latest lipstick shade.

In any case, sceptics and critics of the current digital economy will suggest these companies want to muddy the waters as some consumers might retaliate and refuse to engage when the curtain is drawn back on the data wizard. There is probably an element of truth to this, which perhaps explains why a data-intermediators like MyData are not commonplace today.

MyData is an organisation which has the power to do immense good in the digital economy, but it will not be a simple path to success.

US Government to consider strict data localisation laws

US Senator Josh Hawley has proposed new legislation which would impose data localisation requirements on foreign technology companies.

The legislation, known as the National Security and Personal Data Protection Act, is targeted primarily at China, though it might not be surprising for this concept to be extended elsewhere. As part of the legislation, Chinese app developers who offer services in the US would not be allowed to store data in China. US companies would also be banned from storing data on US citizens in the country.

“Current law makes it far too easy for hostile foreign governments like China to access Americans’ sensitive data,” said Hawley, one of the more prominent critics of Big Tech in Congress.

“Chinese companies with vast amounts of personal data on Americans are required by Chinese law to provide that data to Chinese intelligence services. If your child uses TikTok, there’s a chance the Chinese Communist Party knows where they are, what they look like, what their voices sound like, and what they’re watching. That’s a feature TikTok doesn’t advertise.”

While such a move should have been expected from Harley, concerns over the aggressive success of TikTok have been raised by politicians in recent memory, it remains to be seen whether the sense of irony will be appreciated.

Back in June, rumours circulated regarding US posturing. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly suggested the number of visas afforded to India would be limited unless the government dropped data localisation requirements on US firms. Data protection and privacy issues are perhaps at the heart of these regulation and legislation, however there is also the economic bonus of data centre investments.

This is perhaps an aspect of the legislation which would appeal to US citizens and the White House. President Trump does thoroughly enjoy shouting and screaming about the economic value his administration is bringing to the country.

In the current climate where the US and Chinese governments are not on friendly terms, this is legislation which might be passed quickly. US politicians are fearful of Chinese intelligence agencies, and many would quickly jump on the opportunity to kill any links to China.

US citizens believe data collection risks outweigh the benefits

The technology world is becoming increasingly complicated and inaccessible for the majority, so it is of little surprise citizens are focusing on the negative.

A fair assumption is the majority of individuals will mistrust something they do not understand. This is not a new concept and has been evident throughout the centuries, but the technology giants have rarely helped themselves with secretive business models and presenting an incredibly opaque picture for data analysis.

According to the Pew Research Centre, a supposedly politically-neutral US think tank, the majority of US citizens do not trust the new data tsunami which is sweeping through every aspects of our lives.

Private industry Government
The citizen has little control over data collected by… 81% 84%
Risks outweigh the benefits for data collected by… 81% 66%
Concerned about how data is collected by… 79% 64%
The citizen does not know how data is used by… 59% 78%

What this data indicates is a lack of understanding, and perhaps a condemnation of the competency of those in-control of the data to manage it appropriately. This is a significant risk to anyone involved in the newly-flourishing data-sharing economy; if the general public start to push back, success will be difficult to realise.

There are of course numerous elements to consider as to why the US general public is seemingly so set against the data economy. Firstly, perhaps Big Tech has been too mysterious with the way it functions.

Few people genuinely understand the way in which the big data machine works. There might be a basic understanding of the function, purpose and outcome, but Big Tech has been incredibly secretive when it comes to the nitty-gritty details. These are trade secrets after all, the likes of Google would not want to help its rivals in creating better data-churning machines as this would erode any competitive edge. But the general public are also being left in the dark.

This generally doesn’t matter until things start to go wrong, which leads us onto the second point. There have been too many high-profile data breaches or leaks, such as Equifax, or cases where data has been used irresponsibly, Cambridge Analytica for example. When you combine negative outcomes with a lack of understanding of how the machine functions, the general public will start to become uneasy.

In general, more needs to be done to educate on numerous different areas. Firstly, how the data economy functions. Secondly, what rights individuals have to opt-out of data collections. These rights do exist, and the fact the general public is not aware is a failure of the government. Third, the general public should be aware of what is being done today; how data is being collected, stored, analysed and applied. And finally, what the big picture is, how this data can lead to benefits for society and the individual.

The issue which has been raised here is very simple to understand. The general public is beginning to mistrust the digital economy because it is being asked to trust in a mechanism without any explanation. This is a significant challenge and will need to be addressed as soon as possible. Negative ideas have a way of festering when not addressed. More education is needed or there could be resistance to progress further into the digital world.

The killer 5G app will be the one which changes behaviour – Orange

It is highly unlikely the telcos will be able to find the silver bullet to justify all 5G investments in a single swoop, and what we’re talking about today is unlikely to cut it.

There were a couple of applications which defined the 4G era, though 5G is gearing itself up to be much more complex. Justifying the expense on 5G infrastructure will be much more of a long-burn for the telcos, as one of the pre-requisites will be the alignment of all the moving parts such as the app economy, fibre deployment, changing consumer behaviour and IOT embedding itself into the world.

This is the complicated message which Patrice Slupowski, SVP Digital Innovation & Chief IoT Officer at Orange put across this morning, and the cornerstone of this vision will be data.

“The apps which will make the biggest difference will be the ones which change behaviour,” Slupowski said at Total Telecom Congress this week.

Perhaps a perfect example of how this can be brought together takes a look at health and lifestyle apps which are becoming increasingly popular throughout society.

There is of course a horde of new devices, products, applications and services which track and measure everything from the number of steps you take each day through to the depth of sleep throughout the night. These are simple usecases of connectivity, but when you start to use this data more intelligently, creating services (both private and public) from the insight gathered it becomes a lot more interesting.

This is where investments in IOT, fibre and mobile connectivity (both 5G and LTE-A) become more apparent. In this example, consumers are becoming more informed about their lifestyles and activities, but the knock-on effect could be more predictive and maintenance-based healthcare regimes. Practitioners can keep track of patients without unnecessary visits to clinics, and on the occasion a visit is necessary, data is significantly more accurate allowing for more personalised healthcare programmes.

Healthcare is the example here, though this should be applied to every angle being worked with a 5G swing. Whether it be in an industrial context for smart factories or connected harbours, or on the roads with intelligent signalling or autonomous vehicles. These are usecases which fundamentally change behaviour, either consumer lifestyle or the way a business runs.

This is perhaps why 5G will be a slow-burn to generate ROI. When you combine 5G with IOT, the cloud, AI and the ever-increasing computational power being offered as a commodity, the real value of data starts to be seen. This is when 5G will start to change the way society and enterprise function, and when it could be seen as a winner.

Microsoft might be toying with European data protection compliance

The European Data Protection Supervisor has raised ‘serious concerns’ over whether Microsoft is compliant with data protection regulations.

The contracts in question are between the software giant and various European Union institutions which are making use of said products. The central issue is whether contractual terms are compliant with data protection laws intended to protect individual rights across the region from foreign bodies which do not hold data protection to the same standards.

“Though the investigation is still ongoing, preliminary results reveal serious concerns over the compliance of the relevant contractual terms with data protection rules and the role of Microsoft as a processor for EU institutions using its products and services,” a statement reads.

“Similar risk assessments were carried out by the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security confirmed that public authorities in the Member States face similar issues.”

The preliminary findings from the European Data Protection Supervisor follow on from investigations taking place in the Netherlands and also changes to the Microsoft privacy policies for its VoIP product Skype and AI assistant Cortana. The changes were seemingly a knee-jerk reaction to reports contractors were listening to audio clips to improve translations and the accuracy of inferences.

What is worth noting is that Microsoft is not the only company which has been bending the definition of privacy with regard to contractors and audio clips. Amazon and Google have also been dragged into the hazy definition of privacy and consent.

The issue which seems to be at the heart of this investigation is one of arm’s length. While government authorities and agencies might hand-over responsibility of data protection and privacy compliance to the cloud companies, the European Data Protection Supervisor is suggesting more scrutiny and oversight should be applied by said government parties.

Once again, the definition and extent of privacy principles are causing problems. Europe takes a much more stringent stance on the depth of privacy, as well as the rights which are affording to individuals, than other regions around the world. Ensuring the rights of European citizens are extended elsewhere was one of the primary objectives of the GDPR, though it seems there are still teething problems.

“When using the products and services of IT service providers, EU institutions outsource the processing of large amounts of personal data,” the statement continues.

“Nevertheless, they remain accountable for any processing activities carried out on their behalf. They must assess the risks and have appropriate contractual and technical safeguards in place to mitigate those risks. The same applies to all controllers operating within the EEA.”

One development which could result in additional scrutiny is The Hague Forum, an initiative to create standardised contracts for European member states which meet the baseline data protection and privacy conditions set forward. The European Data Protection Supervisor has encouraged all European institutions to join the Forum.

Although GDPR was seen as a headache for many companies around the world, such statements from the European Data Protection Supervisor proves this is not an area which can simply be addressed once and then forgotten. GDPR was supposed to set a baseline, and there will be more regulation to build further protections. Perhaps the fact that Microsoft is seemingly non-compliant with current regulations justifies the introduction of more rules and red-tape.

Uber is much more than a taxi firm

To most people, Uber is just a cheap and convenient way to get home after a few drinks, but the scope of the business is extraordinary.

While the inclusion of Uber at a broadband conference might have raised a few eyebrows, the overview given by Global Head of Connectivity Rahul Vijay demonstrated the creativity, innovation and stubborn drive which has ensured Silicon Valley and its residents are some of the most influential in the world.

First and foremost, no-one should consider Uber as a taxi company anymore, at least not in the traditional sense. The taxi’s might still account for the majority of annual revenues, but the team is expanding into so many different areas it is difficult to sum up the business in a single sentence.

Aside from the taxi business we all know and love, Uber has a commercial business working with the travel teams at large corporations, the food delivery business unit is solidly position in a fast-growing segment, the team also work with insurance companies to make sure patients make it to their hospital appointments and it is also making promising moves into the freight world. In markets in south east Asia, the team has launched a 2G-compatible app and is also applying the same business model to mopeds and scooters. In Croatia, Uber has launched a boat taxi service.

These are the ideas which are up-and-running or currently being live trialled, though the R&D unit is also playing around with some interesting ideas. Autonomous vehicles, flying taxis and drone delivery initiatives are just some of the blue-thinking projects. This is a company where a lot is going on.

The interesting aspect of the autonomous vehicles is not just the technology but the supporting connectivity landscape.

“Without mobility there is no Uber,” Vijay said at Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam.

Some have suggested that Uber will never be profitable until autonomous vehicles are commonplace through the fleet, though it doesn’t seem to be the technology which is worrying Vijay; connectivity is too expensive today.

The test vehicles which are currently purring around the highways of North America transmit as much as 2 TB of data a day. This is not only a monstrous amount of information to store and analyse, but the economics of taking this data from the car to the data centres is not there. Vijay said it is still by far and away cheaper to transmit this data through optical cables than over the air, which is not practical. Until 5G arrives, and is scaled throughout the transportation infrastructure, autonomous vehicles are not a commercially viable concept for Uber.

This also opens the door up to another very useful revenue stream for Uber. With more than 110 million users around the world, 200 new trips are started every second. These vehicles are travelling through cities, countryside’s and down highways. The amount of information on mobile signal strength or the performance of mobile handoff between cell sites is boggling. These are only two areas, but Vijay suggested there could be hordes of valuable information which could be collected by the vehicles as they fulfil the core primary business objective.

For telcos, regulators, governments or cloud companies, this insight could be incredibly valuable. It could inform investment strategies or encourage policy changes. If data is the new oil, Uber is sitting on a very significant reserve.

As it stands, the company brings in a lot of money, but the prospect of profits are questionable. In the three months ending June 30, Uber revenues attributable to bookings stood at $15.756 billion. The loss from these operations was $5.485 billion. The transportation game operates on very fine margins. Share price has declined by 28% since this earnings call, though there is hope on the horizon.

If Uber can gain traction in the new markets it is pushing aggressively into there will be increased revenues, though in monetizing assets which it creates organically, the data collected from taxi trips, there could be some interesting developments.

IBC 2019: European Broadcasting Union joins FANG regulatory choir

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) is the latest organization to start singing the praises of greater regulation, transparency and accessibility for the internet giants.

It is starting to become a tune to which we are all accustomed to, and it should come as little surprise the victims of aggressive disruption are calling for greater control, but the EBU has joined the regulatory choir at IBC 2019. Speaking during the conference, Noel Curran, Director General of the EBU, fired the shots across the Atlantic at Silicon Valley.

“Why is there no regulation in terms of data?” Curran stated. “Right now, we have an unregulated social media sector, being dominated by four or five big companies that have unprecedented amount of control.”

Again, this is a familiar story. Momentum has continued to gather behind the technology giants of Silicon Valley, compounding an already incredibly influential position. The broadcasters have been left behind, the telcos are attempting to drive relevance and the politicians are no-longer the most influential people in a country.

To add some context to the situation, one of the reasons ‘traditional’ broadcasters are in such a precarious position right now is a lack of evolution. This is an industry which progressed very little prior to the introduction of the streaming giants. Content might have changed, as has the technology to deliver said content, but the business models and engagement of consumers was stagnant.

The door was open for disruption, and if an industry doesn’t disrupt itself, troublemakers from the outside will do it.

Aside from the technology, the talent and the budgets, the FANG companies can harness the power of insight. As Curran points out above, these companies have a treasure trove of information the ‘traditional’ broadcasters can only dream of accessing. It not only allows the disruptors to create innovative business models through hyper-targeted advertising but enables them to make smarter decisions. FANG companies know their customers intrinsically, and it is fuelling growth.

This is another gripe from the ‘traditional’ broadcasting industry; the likes of Netflix and Amazon are not enthusiastic about sharing the wealth of insight. All3Media CEO Jane Turton confirmed what many of us already knew this week; the FANGs haven’t ever voluntarily or knowingly shared this valuable insight, and this is not changing.

This is the competitive edge Silicon Valley has. Sharing this data might encourage more of the ‘traditional’ broadcasting industry to sympathise with the FANGs, however why would they want to erode their advantage? It isn’t a level-playing field right now, though this is only because the FANGs are more forward-thinking and resourceful when it comes to the digital economy.

Perhaps this is something the ‘traditional’ broadcasting lobby will be pushing for in the future. Access to the data and regulation which forces FANG to play nice. The technology giants will of course resist, and we have already seen how powerful its own lobby can be, but the number of opponents is starting to add-up.

Waymo opens-up data treasure trove for autonomous vehicles

Waymo has pulled back the curtain on valuable datasets to help researchers better hone self-driving algorithms.

While this is a nice gesture from the team, we suspect the lid will be kept shut on further datasets unless the idea becomes more mainstream. Data is king in the world of autonomous vehicles and this could prove to be a valuable bonanza for researchers and application developers throughout the world.

Waymo has said the datasets are not available for commercial use, though researchers in commercial organizations are free to access the data for their own development purposes.

“When it comes to research in machine learning, having access to data can turn an idea into a real innovation,” the team said in a Medium post.

“This data has the potential to help researchers make advances in 2D and 3D perception, and progress on areas such as domain adaptation, scene understanding and behaviour prediction. We hope that the research community will generate more exciting directions with our data that will not only help to make self-driving vehicles more capable, but also impact other related fields and applications, such as computer vision and robotics.”

When you look at the development of autonomous vehicles, nothing is more valuable than the right data, and those who collect it are usually very protective. Part of the reason for this is the effort which must be exerted to collect it, with companies like Waymo clocking up millions of miles on the road.

This release contains data from 1,000 driving segments, each capturing 20 seconds of continuous driving, corresponding to 200,000 frames at 10 Hz per sensor. Each segment contains sensor data from five high-resolution Waymo lidars and five front-and-side-facing cameras, offering a 360° view, as well as a total of 12 million 3D labels and 1.2 million 2D labels.

Such data would allow researchers to train models to track and predict the behaviour of other road users, as well as simulate certain situations to find the most appropriate outcome. The dataset covers various environments, from dense urban to suburban landscapes, as well as during day and night, at dawn and dusk, in sunshine and rain.

What is worth noting, as while this is the largest release of data for autonomous vehicles, it is not the first. Lyft released data last month, and Argo AI did so the month before.

The more data which is released to researchers, the quicker the autonomous dream can be realised, and the safer the final product will actually be. It does technically lessen the commercial edge of these organizations, but the final goal of getting autonomous vehicles on the road sooner rather than later seems to be more valuable.

IBM and Google reportedly swap morals for cash in Chinese surveillance JV

IBM and Google executives should be bracing for impact as the comet of controversy heads directly towards their offices.

Reports have emerged, via the Intercept, suggesting two of the US’ most influential and powerful technology giants have indirectly been assisting the Chinese Government with its campaign of mass-surveillance and censorship. Both will try to distance themselves from the controversy, but this could have a significant impact on both firms.

The drama here is focused around a joint-venture, the OpenPower Foundation, founded in 2013 by Google and IBM, but features members such as Red Hat, Broadcom, Mellanox, Xilinx and Rackspace. The aim of the open-ecosystem organization is to facilitate and share advances in networking, server, data storage, and processing technology.

To date, the group has been little more than another relatively uninteresting NPO, serving a niche in the industry, though one initiative is causing the stir. The OpenPower Foundation has been working with Xilinx and Chinese firm Semptian to create a new breed of chips capable of enabling computers to process incredible amounts of data. This might not seem extraordinary, though the application is where the issue has been found.

On the surface, Semptian is a relatively ordinary Chinese semiconductor business, but when you look at its most profitable division, iNext, the story becomes a lot more sinister. iNext specialises in selling equipment to the Chinese Government to enable the mass-surveillance and censorship projects which have become so infamous.

It will come as little surprise a Chinese firm is aiding the Government with its nefarious objectives, but a link to IBM and Google, as well as a host of other US firms, will have some twitching with discomfort. We can imagine the only people who are pleased at this news are the politicians who are looking to get their faces on TV by theatrically condemning the whole saga.

Let’s start with what iNext actually does before moving onto the US firms involved in the controversy. iNext works with Chinese Government agencies by providing a product called Aegis. Aegis is an interception and analysis system which has been embedded into various phone and internet networks throughout the country. This is one of the products which enables the Chinese Government to have such a close eye on the activities of its citizens.

Documentation acquired by The Intercept outlines the proposition in more detail.

“Aegis is not only the standard interception system but also the powerful analysis system with early warning and timely action capabilities. Aegis can work with all kinds of networks and 3rd party systems, from recovering, analysing, exploring, warning, early warning, locating to capturing. Aegis provides LEA with an end to end solution described as Deep Insight, Early Warning and Timely Action.”

Although the majority of this statement is corporate fluff, it does provide some insight into the way in which the technology actually works. This is an incredibly powerful surveillance system, which is capable of locating individuals through application usernames, IP addresses or phone numbers, as well as accurately tracking the location of said individuals on a real-time basis.

Perhaps one of the most worrying aspect of this system is the ‘pre-crime’ element. Although the idea of predictive analytics in some societies has been met with controversy and considerable resistance, we suspect the Chinese Government does not have the same reservations.

iNext promises this feature can help prevent crime through the introduction of an early warning system. This raises all sorts of ethical questions, as while the data estimates might be accurate to five nines, can you arrest someone when they haven’t actually committed a crime. This is the sticky position Google and IBM might have found itself in.

OpenPower has said that it was not aware of the commercial applications of the projects it manages, while its charter prevents it from getting involved. The objective of the foundation is to facilitate the progress of technology, not to act as judge and jury for its application. It’s a nice little way to keep controversy at arm’s length; inaction and negligence is seen as an appropriate defence plea.

For IBM and Google, who are noted as founding members of the OpenPower Foundation, a stance of ignorance might be enough to satisfy institutions of innocence, but the court of public opinion could swing heavily the other direction. An indirect tie to such nefarious activities is enough for many to pass judgment.

When it comes to IBM, the pursuit of innocence becomes a little bit trickier. IBM is directly mentioned on the Semptian website, suggesting Big Blue has been working closely with the Chinese firm for some time, though the details of this relationship are unknown for the moment.

For any of the US firms which have been mentioned here, it is not a comfortable situation to be in. Although they might be able to plead ignorance, it is quite difficult to believe. These are monstrous multi-national billion-dollar corporations, with hordes of lawyers, some of whom will be tasked with making sure the technology is not being utilised in situations which would get the firm in trouble.

Of course, this is not the first time US technology firms have found themselves on the wrong side of right. There have been numerous protests from employees of the technology giants as to how the technology is being applied in the real-world. Google is a prime example.

In April 2018, Google employees revolted over an initiative the firm was participating in with the US Government. Known as Project Maven, Google’s AI technology was used to improve the accuracy of drone strikes. As you can imagine, the Googlers were not happy at the thought of helping the US Government blow people up. Project Dragonfly was another which brought internal uproar, this time the Googlers were helping to create a version of the Google news app for China which would filter out certain stories which the Government deemed undesirable.

Most of the internet giants will plead their case, suggesting their intentions are only to advance society, but there are numerous examples of contracts and initiatives which contradict this position.

Most developers or engineers, especially the ones who work for a Silicon Valley giant, work for the highest bidder, but there is a moral line few will cross. As we’ve seen before, employees are not happy to aide governments in the business of death, surveillance or censorship, and we suspect the same storyline will play out here.

Google and IBM should be preparing themselves for significant internal and external backlash.

Google’s Sidewalk’s bet is a nightmare for the privacy conscious

If you’re concerned about whether Google is listening to you through your phone or smart speaker, soon enough you’ll have to worry about lampposts having ears, or at least if your live in Toronto.

For those who have not been keeping up-to-date with the Canadian tech scene, Google’s Sidewalk Labs is currently working in partnership with Toronto to demonstrate the vision of tomorrow; the smart city. Plans are still being drawn up, though it looks like two neighbourhoods will be created with a new Google campus bang in the middle.

The Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP) hope to create the city of tomorrow and will be governed by Waterfront Toronto, a publicly-funded organization. In a move to seemingly appease the data concerns of Waterfront Toronto, Google has now stated all the systems would be run by analysing data, but Sidewalk Labs will not disclose personal information to third parties without explicit consent and will not sell personal information.

This is the first bit of insight we’ve had on this initiative for a while. Having secured the project in 2017, Sidewalk Labs has been in R&D mode. The team is attempting to prove the business case and the products, though it won’t be long before work is underway. Assuming of course Google is able to duck and weave through the red-tape which is going to be presented over the next 12-18 months.

The most recent development is a series of white papers which are addressing numerous topics from sustainable production plans, mobility, data protection and privacy and the envisioned usecases. If you have a spare few hours, you can find all the documentation here.

Of course, there are plenty of smart city initiatives around the world but what makes this one interesting is that the concept of ‘smart’ is being built from the foundations. This is a greenfield project not brownfield, which is substantially easier. Buildings, street furniture and infrastructure can be built with connectivity in mind.

This is the challenge which other cities are facing, lets take London as an example. Construction on the London Underground system started in 1863, while the London sewage system was plumbed in between 1859 and 1865. The city itself, and the basic layout, was established in 50 AD. Although there are creative solutions to enhance connectivity, most cities were built in the days before most could even conceive of the internet.

The Quayside and Villiers West neighbourhoods will be home to almost 7,000 residents and offer jobs to even more, anchored by the new Google campus. The buildings will offer ‘adaptable’ spaces, including floor plates and sliding walls panels to accelerate renovations and reduce vacancies. It will also be incredibly energy friendly, featuring a thermal energy grid which could heat and cool homes using the natural temperature of the earth.

But onto the areas which most people in the industry will be interested in; the introduction of new technologies and access to data.

High-speed internet connections will be promised to all residents and businesses, intelligent traffic lights and curbs will be deployed to better regulate traffic, smart awnings will be introduced for those into gimmicky technology and the neighbours will be designed to allow for an army of underground delivery robots to function.

Autonomous driving is one technology area which fits perfectly into the greenfield advantage. The complications of creating a landscape for autonomous vehicles in older cities are great, but by building up the regions with connectivity in mind many of these challenges can be averted. Not only can the introduction of self-driving vehicles be accelerated, but ride-sharing (Zipcar) or hailing (Uber) alternatives can be assisted while other options such as e-scooters are more realistic.

Such is the ambition nurtured in the Google business, if there is a crazy idea which can be applied to the smart city concept, Sidewalk Labs have probably factored it into the design and build process.

And now onto the data. This is where the project has drawn criticism as Google does not necessarily have the most glistening record when it comes to data privacy and protection. Small print littered throughout various applications has ensured Google is never too far away from criticism. In fairness, this is a problem which is industry wide, but a cloud of scepticism has been placed over any initiative which has data as the fuel.

The latest announcement from Google/Sidewalk Labs focuses on this very issue. Sidewalk Labs will not sell any personal information, this data will not be used to fuel the advertising mechanisms and it will not disclose this insight to third-parties. Explicit consent would have to be provided in any of these circumstances.

Whether these conditions will be up to the standards defined by Waterfront Toronto remains to be seen. This body has the final say and may choose to set its own standards at a higher or lower level. Anonymity might be called into play as many activists have been pushing. This is not a scenario which Google would want to see.

While expanding into new services might seem like an attractive idea, if this expansion can be coupled with additional access to data to fuel the Google data machine, it is a massive win for the internet giant. Let’s not forget, everything which Google has done to date (perhaps excluding Loon and the failed Fiber business) has paid homage to the advertising mechanisms.

Fi offers it interesting data on customer locations, the smart speakers are simply an extension of the core advertising business through a new user interface and Android allowed Google to place incredibly profitable products as default on billions of phones and devices. If Google can start to access new data sets it can offer new services, engage new customers and create new revenues for investors.

Let’s say it can start collecting data on traffic flow, this could become important insight for traffic management and city planners when it comes to adding or altering bus routes. This data could also be used to reduce energy consumption on street lights or traffic lights; if there is no-one there, do they actually need to be on? It could also help retailers forecast demand for new stores and aid the police with their work.

These ideas might not sound revolutionary or that they would bring in billions, but always remember, Google never does anything for free. This is a company which seems to see ideas before anyone else and can monetize them like few others. If Google is paying this much attention to an idea or project, there must be money to be made and we bet there is quite a bit.

But this is where Google is facing the greatest opposition. Because it is so good at extracting insight and value from data, it is one of the companies which is facing the fiercest criticism. This will be the most notable the further afield Google spreads its wings. It seems the world is content with Google sucking value out of personal data when it comes to search engines or mobile apps, but pavements, lampposts and bus stops might be a step too far for some.

Of course, criticism might disappear when jealousy emerges. The hardcore privacy advocates will never rest, but most simply don’t care that much. Privacy violations will of course cause uproar, but if there is a fair trade-off, most will accept Google’s role. If Google can prove these neighbourhoods not only improve the quality of life, but also offer advantages to entertainment and business (for example), this initiative could prove to be very popular with the general public, governments and businesses.