What’s Inside a Confidential Data Disclosure from Smart City Firm Replica May Surprise You

A "data disclosure" provided to Portland city planners from former Sidewalk Labs firm Replica is vague on data sources and privacy methods.

If you read the words, “confidential and proprietary” at the top of a document, you might think, “jackpot!” “Bingo!” “This is it!”

A document labeled “confidential and proprietary” must be where all the real information is hidden, right? Where the names are named, where the trade secrets see the light of day, where the deep details intended for a select few are exposed…?

replica_data_disclosure_screenshot

But for Replica, a former Alphabet-owned firm, a so-called “data disclosure” document labeled with those words is not very revealing at all.

And that’s noteworthy, because Replica wants its algorithmic technology to influence city planning policy in Portland, OR and other municipalities. The company’s technology transforms real-world data into a synthetic populous mimicking how people move around a city.

replica_bikerider_newsquareLet’s remember, when people in Toronto balked at the use of Replica in their city, Sidewalk Labs swiftly walked back those plans. Instead, the company said it would set its sights on Replica projects in the U.S. Now, as the company aims to influence city planning policy, it is reluctant to cough up concrete information about its technology. Meanwhile, as reported by Matt Drange in Protocol, municipalities like Kansas City question whether they’ll go forward with the technology at all.

The “data disclosure” sent to Portland staff by Replica? It provides very little information about where Replica data comes from. And, rather than showing the city a full report of a privacy audit the company commissioned for the system, the document includes only a short “summary of findings.”

Check out Replica’s data disclosure for yourself.

I obtained the four-page document as part of a trove of emails resulting from a freedom of information act request I made in November 2019. Those hundreds of pages of emails formed the basis of my recent Fast Company story about Replica in Portland.

Now, as Replica aims to influence city planning policy, the company is reluctant to cough up concrete information about its technology.

The document appears to be the most comprehensive information provided to the city about the firm’s data sources or privacy methods. Even when Replica was still just a software product produced by Sidewalk Labs as part of the Alphabet empire, it was known publicly it used mobile location data from telcos to build its algorithmic models. We knew then it layers on demographic data.

There are some new data clues, though: The data disclosure shows Replica uses information from freight and logistics companies, and payment-processing companies, too. It also shows how the company vets its data suppliers and provides a limited description of its privacy techniques.

But there are no names of data sources. If this document really does represent the extent to which Replica has responded to Portland’s requests for detail on data sources and privacy methods, it is woefully vague. The people implementing the technology and guiding its use by city planning staff do not know what telco firms sell data to Replica. They don’t know who those payment processing or freight logistics firms are.

My earlier investigation of Replica’s origin revealed that AT&T supplied data for academic research that led to what the software is today. Do they supply to Replica today? We don’t know, and it appears the municipalities working with Replica do not know either.

What is happening in Portland with Replica sets one more precedent for future interactions between governments and the tech firms that aim to influence decisions affecting the day-to-day lives of residents.

They also don’t know a heck of a lot about how the system is built. There’s no way to know for sure, but email conversations between Replica and Portland indicate the 2017 academic paper is about the only information the city has seen showing detail of Replica’s system methodology.

As I wrote in my Fast Company story, “as Replica and others aim to sell systems that impact government policy, some argue they should be more transparent about the nuts and bolts of technologies that inform or even replace human decisions.”

Governments use all sorts of technologies they do not inspect before implementation. In many cases, it’s no big deal. Who cares if your city knows how the photocopier works? But as voting system screwups have shown us, governments must open the hood and inspect how certain systems are built.

More and more, cities are experimenting with emerging tech that relies on black box algorithms to guide decisions. Sometimes they’re relying on unvetted algorithms to make decisions entirely without human intervention. What is happening in Portland with Replica sets one more precedent for future interactions between governments and the tech firms that aim to influence decisions affecting the day-to-day lives of residents.

And that is a big deal.

 

About Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning journalist with nearly twenty years of professional reporting experience chronicling the evolution of digital media and technology. One of the first reporters to track how political organizations use digital advertising, Kate is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a 2009 book (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1441488464/ref=cm_cr_thx_view) covering the digital media efforts of the 2008 presidential campaigns. Kate has appeared on NPR’s On the Media, Weekend Edition Sunday and the Brian Lehrer Show, in addition to Fox’s Stossel Show and CBC Radio.

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