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‘Not good enough’: Toronto privacy expert resigns from Sidewalk Labs over data concerns

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A privacy expert who resigned this week from her role as an advisor to Sidewalk Labs, the Google sister company set to build a “smart” neighbourhood on Toronto’s waterfront, is concerned that the “treasure trove” of data collected there will be vulnerable to attacks.

The departure of Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former privacy commissioner and current Ryerson University fellow, is just the latest blow to the ambitious, data-driven project.

Cavoukian said Sunday she chose to resign after a Thursday meeting between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront TO, the organization responsible for revitalizing the city’s lakeshore.

It was there that Sidewalk Labs revealed that, while it has committed to stripping all of the data it collects of personal identifiers, it could not guarantee that other groups participating in the project would do the same. 

“When I heard that, I knew I had to resign,” Cavoukian said in an interview on CBC News Network. 

The 12-acre smart neighbourhood, called Quayside, would undoubtedly amass an extraordinary quantity of data from sensors embedded into the physical infrastructure. A key part of Cavoukian’s advisory role was helping Sidewalk implement privacy-protecting measures into the design of the area.

Sidewalk Labs has proposed the redevelopment of what’s currently a stretch of parking lots and former industrial space along Toronto’s eastern waterfront. (Sidewalk Labs)

Most critically, she has advocated for stripping any given data point of all personally identifiable details right away using well-established techniques, as there is no opportunity for people to actually consent to collection of the information. For its part, Sidewalk Labs has committed to doing that. 

On Monday, however, the company proposed that all of the data generated by Quayside be kept in a “civic data trust.” This way, no one entity would own all of it. 

“This trust would approve and control the collection of, and manage access to, urban data originating in Quayside,” wrote Alyssa Harvey Dawson, head of data governance at Sidewalk Labs, in an online post.  

“The civic data trust would be guided by a charter ensuring that urban data is collected and used in a way that is beneficial to the community, protects privacy, and spurs innovation and investment.”

Doubts about data security

But there was a catch, Cavoukian said. De-identification of data by the various stakeholders in the trust would not be mandatory, only “encouraged” by Sidewalk Labs.

“That’s not good enough,” Cavoukian said. “The only way to address this issue to ensure privacy — which I must do — is to de-identify at source at the time of collection.”

In her resignation letter sent to Sidewalk Labs on Friday, Cavoukian phrased her concerns this way:

“Just think of the consequences: If personally identifiable data are not de-identified at source, we will be creating another central database of personal information (controlled by whom?), that may be used without data subjects’ consent, that will be exposed to the risks of hacking and unauthorized access,” she wrote. 

“As we all know, existing methods of encryption are not infallible and may be broken, potentially exposing the personal data of Waterfront Toronto residents! Why take such risks?”

Saadia Muzaffar, tech entrepreneur, author and founder of TechGirls Canada, also left her advisory role, citing ‘profound concerns’ about the Quayside project. (CBC)

Cavoukian’s departure comes weeks after TechGirls Canada founder Saadia Muzaffar left her role on the advisory panel. Muzaffar said she had “profound concerns” about apparent “a lack of leadership regarding shaky public trust” and what she considered unacceptable questions around privacy and intellectual property. 

Last week Saadia Muzaffar resigned from the Waterfront Toronto-Sidewalk Labs advisory panel. In her resignation letter, she criticized the leadership and outlined her concerns for the safety and protection of our personal data. She talks about her concerns, and Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Sidewalk Labs, responds. 16:26

The Quayside project, announced last October by Waterfront TO, has proved a lightning rod for criticisms from digital privacy advocates, who have argued that Sidewalk Labs has not been forthcoming enough about what data might be used for. 

Cavoukian said she hopes her resignation will spark a wider discussion about the project can be built while ensuring that privacy is protected. 

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The ‘Maple Majestic’ wants to be Canada’s homegrown Tesla

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Look out Tesla, Canada has a homegrown electric sedan on the way. Well, that’s if AK International Motor Corporation can drum up enough investment to make its EV a reality. Dubbed the “Maple Majestic,” the vehicle is a battery-electric designed to “excel in extreme climate performance without adversely affecting the climate, as befits a vehicle from Canada,” according to its website.

What’s in a name? — The company says the maple leaf is a “symbol of Canada’s warmth and friendliness towards all cultures,” while “majestic” refers to the country’s “status as a Constitutional Monarchy.”

That patriotism carries over into Maple Majestic’s parent company’s lofty goals. AK Motor founder Arkadiusz Kaminski says he wants the company, which he founded in 2012, to become “Canada’s first multi-brand automotive OEM,” and that the “Maple Majestic is intended to be Canada’s flagship brand of automobiles on the world stage.”

Partnerships are key — “We acknowledge that the best chance for the Maple Majestic brand to succeed, lies in continuing to build the relationship with Canada’s parts suppliers and technological innovators, whether they be academic institutions, corporations, or individual inventors,” the company explains. “We are currently seeking partners in automotive engineering, parts manufacturing, automotive assembly, electric propulsion technology, battery technology, autonomous technology, and hybrid power generation technology.”

In other words, don’t expect to be able to buy a Maple Majestic any time soon… and don’t expect to pour over 0-60 mph times, power output, range, or other key stats, because those don’t currently exist. For now, all we have are pictures and a short video clip. But at least those are arresting.

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PE-backed Quorum Software to merge with Canadian energy tech firm

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Houston-based energy technology company Quorum Software will merge with a Canadian tech firm to bolster its presence in oil and gas services.

Quorum announced Feb. 15 it plans to merge with Calgary, Alberta-based Aucerna, a global provider of planning, execution and reserves software for the energy sector. The combined firm will operate under the Quorum Software brand.

Gene Austin, CEO of Quorum Software, will continue in his capacity as chief executive of the combined firm. Austin, former CEO of Austin-based marketing tech firm Bazaarvoice Inc., became CEO of Quorum in December 2018.

Aucerna co-founder and CEO Wayne Sim will be appointed to the Quorum Software board of directors. Both companies are backed by San Francisco- and Chicago-based private equity firm Thoma Bravo.

“Over the last 20 years, Quorum has become the leading innovator of software deployed by North American energy companies,” said Austin. “Today, Quorum is expanding the scope of our technology and expertise to all energy-producing regions of the globe. Customers everywhere will have access to a cloud technology ecosystem that connects decision-ready data from operations to the boardroom.”

In addition to the merger announcement, Quorum Software announced it had entered into an agreement with Finnish IT firm TietoEvry to purchase TietoEvry’s entire oil and gas business. The agreement, which includes hydrocarbon management, personnel and material logistics software and related services, is valued at 155 million euros, or $188 million, according to a statement from TietoEvry.

“Our three organizations complement each other — from the software that our great people design to the energy markets where we operate,” said Sim. “Our new company will be able to deliver value to our stakeholders, while accelerating the growth of our combined business and the energy industry’s software transformation.”

The combined company will serve over 1,800 energy companies in 55 countries, according to the announcement. With its headquarters in Houston, Quorum will continue to have a significant presence in Calgary and in Norway, the headquarters for TietoEvry’s oil and gas software business. Quorum will have other offices throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

As of Sept. 30, 2020, private equity firm Thoma Bravo had more than $73 billion in assets under management. In late December 2020, Thoma Bravo agreed to acquire Richardson, Texas-based tech firm RealPage in a roughly $10 billion acquisition.

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Piece of Kitchener technology lands on Mars on Perseverance rover

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KITCHENER — A piece of Kitchener technology has landed on Mars, thanks to NASA’s Perseverance rover.

The rover settled on the planet’s surface on Thursday afternoon. It’s been travelling through space since it was launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla. in July.

“The whole idea of being on a device that we’re sending to another plant with the express mission of looking for traces of past life, it’s pretty mind boggling actually,” said Rafal Pawluczyk, chief technical officer for FiberTech Optica.

The Kitchener-based company made fibre optic cables for the rover’s SuperCam that will examine samples with a camera, laser and spectrometers.

“The cables that we built take the light from that multiplexer and deliver it to each spectrograph,” Pawluczyk said.

The cables connect a device on the rover to the SuperCam, which will be used to examine rock and soil samples, to spectrometers. They’ll relay information from one device to another.

The project started four years ago with a connection to Los Alamos National Lab, where the instruments connected to the cables were developed.

“We could actually demonstrate we can design something that will meet their really hard engineering requirements,” Pawluczyk said.

The Jezero Crater is where the Perseverance rover, with FiberTech Optica’s technology onboard, landed Thursday. Scientists believe it was once flooded with water and is the best bet for finding any evidence of life. FiberTech’s cables will help that in that search.

Ioannis Haranas, an astrophysicist and professor at Wilfrid Laurier University, said the rover isn’t looking for “green men.”

“They’re looking for microbial, single-cell life, any type of fossils and stuff like that,” Haranas said. “That’s why they chose a special landing site. This could be very fertile land for that.”

“It’s very ambitious,” said Ralf Gellert, a physics professor at the University of Guelph.

Gellert helped with previous rover missions and said it’s the first time a Mars rover has landed without a piece of Guelph technology on it. While he’s not part of Perseverance’s mission, he said the possibilities are exciting.

“Every new landing site is a new piece of the puzzle that you can put together with the new results that we have from the other landing sites,” he said.

“It’s scientifically very interesting because, even though we don’t have an instrument on that rover, we can compare what the new rover Perseverance finds at this new landing site,” he said.

Now that Perseverance has landed on Mars, FiberTech is looking ahead to its next possible mission into space.

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