smart benches

Toronto is debating smart park benches that track user behaviour

One of the key reasons people in Toronto were opposed to the idea of sprawling Google-owned smart city Sidewalk Labs coming to our shore was because of some of the questionable technological features that the innovative development would have, which led to some concerns about residents' privacy.

From a pneumatic waste collection system and raincoats for buildings to its own public transit system, the neighbourhood — which was due to take over Quayside — was going to be "built from the Internet up" and have the ambitious futuristic features to prove it.

Many of these features, though, were slated to have the dual purpose of collecting people's information, prompting lawsuits such as the one launched by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association that said Torontonians were going to be used as "lab rats" from which Google could "profit from [their] behavioural data."

Though Google abandoned the project last year (to the joy of critics who thought the costs outweighed the benefits), there are other companies vying to bring similar new tech to the 6ix, though on a much smaller scale — including one that has proposed new park benches that are very reminiscent of the ones Sidewalk Labs had planned.

Crotian company Include Ltd. is trying to sell Toronto City Hall on its Steora City smart bench, which comes with handy features like phone, laptop and e-bike chargers, as well as ambient light.

Given that the city's deal with Astral Media for the benches and transit shelters we currently enjoy ends in 2027, as pointed out by City Hall Watcher creator Matt Elliott, it makes sense that there would be other contenders to nab the contract for these amenities.

Unfortunately, Include's benches come with other, somewhat unsettling tech, like an AI camera that can "segment passers-by" to serve them relevant ads or gather pedestrian info and sensors that track how many people sit on each bench, how long they stayed and if and how they used the seat's chargers.

"City feels and knows everything that goes on," the brand writes of the bench. Very creepy.

Though it's just one of many suggestions from the private sector for the city at the moment, it warrants some attention given the fact that privacy has become such a hot button issue, whether it be in regards to smart cities, smart benches or proof of vaccination policies and passports.

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