A Googlopolis grows in Toronto

February 19, 2020, 3:01 PM UTC

What if Big Tech planned a city from scratch?

That’s the idea behind Quayside, a 12-acre plot of land on Toronto’s eastern harbor. Earlier this month I visited the mostly vacant swatch of waterfront property where Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet’s urban tech subsidiary, is designing what it hopes will be a data-driven, eco-friendly wonderland. Opponents, however, see the project as a disaster in the making.

I covered the protracted battle over this mud lot in an article from the March issue of the magazine, alongside a collection of other city-themed stories. (Adam discussed his excellent deep dive on San Francisco’s troubles in yesterday’s Data Sheet.)

During a tour of the Quayside site, I was wowed by Sidewalk’s ambition. The Google sibling has devised what it hopes will be a safe, affordable, and efficient neighborhood. The team uses all the right buzzwords: combating climate change, prioritizing pedestrians and low-income populations, optimizing resource use, and making life “infinitely better,” as Sidewalk CEO Dan Doctoroff put it to me.

But since Sidewalk won the right to propose its vision for the area in 2017, the development has been hamstrung by criticism. A #BlockSidewalk movement comprised of Toronto locals sprung up to counter the project. Activists fear the data privacy implications of the deal, and they accuse the corporation of intruding like an old-school colonialist. Quayside’s owner, a nonprofit economic development group called Waterfront Toronto, has dithered and delayed its final decision-making. The group now says it will decide whether to proceed with Sidewalk’s plans by May 20 (a deadline that has already been twice extended).

I met up with Bianca Wylie, a founder of the opposition movement as well as the activist group Tech Reset Canada, at a hotel bar. I asked Wylie to describe her most dystopian vision of the outcome. To my surprise, Wylie did not invoke Minority Report, Big Brother, or the kinds of mass surveillance-enabled clampdowns on civil rights seen in regions of China. Instead, Wylie said her biggest fear was that the whole debacle would turn out to be one big “scam.”

In Wylie’s view, data privacy is a bit of a red herring. Alphabet and many other tech giants love talking about the topic because they’ve prepared canned responses about privacy’s value, efforts to minimize data collection, and putting opt-ins and other protections in place. What’s really at issue, Wylie says, is that a government may sell out its citizens to a corporation. To Wylie, Toronto is ceding the mandates of public institutions to private industry.

It’s easy to get carried away by the paradise Sidewalk renders. Indeed, everyone I spoke to—including Quayside’s critics—seems to think that Alphabet’s experiment is going to pass muster. (Even if the implementation details remain in flux.)

But the critics are not quieting down. As one of the project’s biggest opponents, Jim Balsillie, the former co-CEO of BlackBerry maker Research in Motion, told me: “Whatever is going to happen, it’s going to be a defanged and mangled mess.”

Robert Hackett

Twitter: @rhhackett

Email: robert.hackett@fortune.com


R-S-Adios. Dell has agreed to sell RSA Security for $2 billion in cash to a consortium led by the California private equity firm Symphony Technology Group.  The deal is expected to close in six to nine months. Wall Street has been pressuring Dell to pay down the debt that founder Michael Dell took on to take the company private in 2013 in what was then the biggest-ever leveraged buyout in tech. (Dell returned to the public markets in 2018.)

Time for your checkup. Alibaba and Ant Financial worked with the government of Hangzhou in China to develop a health rating app that classifies people into three categories: red, yellow, and green. The app requires people to self-report the presence of flu-like symptoms as well as their travel history in order to assess their exposure to the Coronavirus and regulate their movements. Tencent also rolled out its own health rating system through its megapopular app WeChat in Shenzhen

Put that in your pipe and smoke it. The Department of Homeland Security warns that a cyberattack took down a natural gas compression facility for two days. The agency did not say when the attack took place, which company suffered an outage, or who launched the attack.

Traveling through hyperspace ain't like dusting crops, boy! Security researchers at McAfee tricked Tesla vehicles into accelerating from 35 miles per hour to 85 miles per hour using a piece of tape. The car's MobileEye EyeQ3 cameras were to blame. The tricksters applied the adhesive to speed limit signs, modifying the shape of the "3" to look like an "8." 

Robbing roubles. The Russian central bank said it recorded an increase in online theft last year amounting to 6.4 billion roubles, or $100 million, stolen from private and corporate bank accounts. The bank did not indicate how much the theft increased from the previous year.

Won't you be my neighbor?


Rarely is anyone granted access to the inner workings of the minds of tech moguls. Wired editor Steven Levy, however, got his hands on a portion of an old notebook penned by Mark Zuckerberg, which lays out the Facebook founder's early plans for world domination. Particularly intriguing, in light of the company's many data privacy scandals, is a passage in which Zuckerberg ponders how to pass off the appearance of security, as related in this cover story

He wanted Facebook to be wide open eventually, but on the pages of the notebook, you could see him grappling with the implications. What distinguished Facebook from other social networks was the assumed privacy provided by its gated setup. Open Reg would throw open those gates to the masses. But would people then no longer see Facebook as a safe space? In designing Open Reg, he posted one final question to himself.

“What makes this seem secure, whether or not it actually is?” He seemed at least as concerned about the perception of privacy as with privacy itself.


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Elon Musk’s SpaceX officially gets into the space tourism business by Chris Morris

Artificial Intelligence and the need for speed by Jonathan Vanian


Which language is the hardest to lip-read? Dan Nosowitz at Atlas Obscura has taken a stab at an answer. The frequency of guttural sounds in a spoken language can make lip-reading difficult, as can a culture's association with mouth-obscuring facial hair. Nosowitz nominates Hebrew, Hindi, Tamil, and Gujarati as among the most difficult to parse by eye.

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