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Sidewalk Lab’s use of cellphone data in proposed U.S. deal raises concern in Toronto




Your cellphone knows when you are sleeping. It knows when you’re awake. It knows where you’ve been and it sends all that information to Google.

As Toronto contemplates allowing the American tech behemoth to build one of the world’s first “smart neighbourhoods” on the eastern waterfront, details have emerged of how Google proposes to collect and commodify data collected from millions of cellphones — and sell it to government.

The Sidewalk Toronto plan is a proposed 12-acre development along the eastern waterfront intended to use technology to improve the lives of its residents.
The Sidewalk Toronto plan is a proposed 12-acre development along the eastern waterfront intended to use technology to improve the lives of its residents.  (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Sidewalk Labs, which is owned by Google’s parent company, recently entered into negotiations to sell the state of Illinois an urban planning tool that maps out commuting patterns based on people’s cellphone location data, which the company “de-identifies” to protect privacy.

The tool, called Replica, is a real-world example of what Sidewalk Labs — which has been vague about its plans for the future Quayside development — says it will do with data. And the company has said it will bring the program to Toronto.

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“GPS data should provide the characteristics of individual travellers,” said two Illinois public servants in a public procurement document filed in February, adding that the depersonalized data allows for “analysis of not only what trips are being made, but by whom.”

The state began negotiations for an anticipated three-year, $3.6 million sole-sourced contract for Replica earlier this year. The contract hasn’t yet been signed, a state official said this week.

In the wake of two high-profile resignations of Waterfront Toronto advisers who question whether the future development will benefit the public, and an Associated Press investigation that showed Google tracks people even when they turn off tracking on their phones, critics question whether Toronto should volunteer to be a guinea pig for the company’s urban experiment.

According to the documents filed in Illinois, Replica will be used to build a travel demand model that would allow city planners to “run alternative scenarios for where traffic would go if a new bridge or road were constructed.”

“It’s clearly in the public good for some of this info to be used for city planning,” said Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “But do people even know their data is being collected?”

“Is it reasonable for that data to be used by a for-profit vendor to sell back to the government?” she asked. “It’s a morass of ethical issues.”

The tool, which Sidewalk is in the process of selling to Kansas City and Illinois, has been offered for Toronto to use in the future free of charge, said Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Dan Levitan.

Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, is planning a major project at the waterfront's Quayside location. The primarily residential project is set to feature buildings made entirely from timber.
Sidewalk Labs, a sister company of Google, is planning a major project at the waterfront’s Quayside location. The primarily residential project is set to feature buildings made entirely from timber.  (Supplied)

Jim Balsillie, former CEO of Canadian technology giant Research In Motion, reviewed the Illinois procurement documents for Replica and said it reinforced his belief that Waterfront Toronto should have developed a policy on how data would be handled before signing a deal with Sidewalk Labs, not after.

“This is precisely the type of technology that shows the unique power of citizen and sensor data. If this is introduced in Toronto it will have major implications for privacy, prosperity, values and democracy,” he told the Star.

The Sidewalk Toronto plan is a proposed 12-acre development intended to use technology to improve the lives of its residents. A detailed project description hasn’t been released but in public meetings, Sidewalk Labs has discussed sensors on roadways that could measure things like temperature or air quality.

Critics of the project warn it could result in “mass surveillance” and privacy invasions, and there are also calls for the data collected to be controlled by government rather than a large profit-oriented U.S. corporation.

The sales pitch for Sidewalk Lab’s Replica is simple: Cities spend millions on household travel surveys for traffic planning. Data gathered from cellphones provides much more reliable data, that updates more frequently, at a cheaper cost to the government. Replica uses sophisticated algorithms to protect the privacy of people whose phones were used to create commuting projections.

“Cities, transit agencies, and planning departments are already buying anonymized and aggregated location data to understand how people move around in cities. Replica combines this data with census information to create a richer and more accurate model of how people travel, while using a synthetic, virtual population to ensure much more rigorous privacy,” Nick Bowden, who leads the team building Replica, said in a statement sent to the Star.

“It’s clearly in the public good for some of this info to be used for city planning,” said Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “But do people even know their data is being collected?”
“It’s clearly in the public good for some of this info to be used for city planning,” said Brenda McPhail, director of the privacy, technology and surveillance project at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “But do people even know their data is being collected?”  (Supplied)

In April, Bowden wrote a blog post on Sidewalk Toronto’s website introducing the Replica tool for city planners and said the program would be used in Toronto.

“We are currently building Replica to support the development of plans for Sidewalk Toronto,” Bowden wrote. “We’ll be sharing Replica with local Toronto researchers and public agencies to gather feedback and make it more useful to them.”

Contacted this week, Sidewalk Labs spokesperson Levitan said those statements were aspirational and while Replica may be brought to Toronto in the future, “the Replica team is now focused on developing their model for other cities in the U.S.”

Replica analyzes people’s movement through a city without actually using real people’s data, according to the Sidewalk Labs’ website. Instead, a “synthetic population” of “doppelgangers” is created with GPS data from millions of actual cellphones and then adjusted according to the census data to make it statistically accurate. This way, there are precisely the correct number of rich people and poor people, of single mothers and university students, of cyclists and truck drivers, in each area of the city. But none of these people are real; they’re simply modelled on real people.

Replica’s location data “is collected by third party mobile apps with all identifying information — like names and phone numbers — removed,” the website states.

It is unclear whether Replica, if brought to Toronto, would later come with costs. The Illinois procurement documents describe a “charter customer program” that allows customers “to evaluate Replica risk-free and only pay when the customer acceptance criteria has been met.”

Ironically, just before Illinois entered into negotiations to purchase Replica, the state was poised to enact one of the strictest cellphone privacy laws in the world, which prohibited companies from collecting geolocation data from anyone’s phone without their express consent. After it was passed by the state assembly, Illinois governor Bruce Rauner vetoed the bill.


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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal




MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow




Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise




Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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