You’ve probably never heard of Sidewalk Labs. It’s Larry Page’s startup, owned by Google/Alphabet, whose mission in life is to “improve city life for everyone”. While that sounds benign, a new investigation shows that the company’s plans would give Google control over large segments of our daily city lives.
Sidewalk Labs is perhaps best known for bringing free Wi-Fi hotspots to New York last year, and claiming soon afterwards that it was looking to recreate that project’s success in other cities around the world. Since then, the company has been developing Flow, its cloud-based, smart-city, management solution which it is now offering to Columbus, Ohio.
Flow, according to an investigation by The Guardian, would rely on the cloud, Google’s mapping service, machine-learning algorithms and people’s phones to direct and restructure large swathes of the city it operates in. For example, Flow would rely on cars similar to the ones that acquire mapping data for Maps, which would roam around the city and find all the parking lots. Then, the algorithm would rely on drivers using Google Maps to determine which areas of the city are congested, and it could direct drivers towards available parking.
Businesses that have extra parking spaces, or even residents with room to spare could rent out their parking spaces to Flow.
While that sounds very useful, note that a big part of this plan relies on altering parking prices based on demand. The other side of the coin is that city workers, like parking officers, would be able to rely on Flow’s knowledge of traffic around the city and inspect areas where there are likely to be more parking violations happening. A medium-sized city could use such “optimized parking enforcement” to supposedly ensure millions of dollars in extra fines every year.
Just like Uber has surge pricing when there’s a lot of demand for cars, so would Flow hike up parking prices for busy areas and hours, and so could it tell police where the largest number of violations is likely to happen.
And speaking of Uber, Flow would require any city that wants to implement the system to allow public transport subsidies to be spent on ride-sharing services. This could provide a decrease in traffic in some cases, as well as greater flexibility for citizens. But, experts warn, it would also take a big chunk of the revenue that public transit systems rely on, moving that money into Uber or Lyft’s private pockets. Note that Google owns around 5% of Uber.
Another important aspect of Flow is the way the system processes payments. Smart parking lots, ride-sharing services, and every other service that’s part of the platform would require the city to integrate Flow – read Google – payments into every aspect of city life.
The control that Google would have over a city that implements Flow is staggering, and the data the company could gather may be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. As such, the privacy, legal, ethical and security implications are worthy of very careful consideration.
So far, Columbus officials have not agreed to Sidewalk Labs’ terms and conditions, though the city’s officials said they do see value in this proposition.
Source: The Guardian