Sidewalk Labs' street signs alert people to data collection in use

The icons let people know what data and information is being collected around them.

As Sidewalk Labs builds its "smart city" in Toronto, there have been growing concerns that the sensor and camera-laden neighborhood may invade the privacy of citizens. To deal with some of those issues, the subsidiary of Alphabet announced today that it is working on creating icons that would help people better understand the technology they run into while navigating cities. The images would be displayed on hexagon-shaped signs that would highlight what type of data is being collected in an area and how it is being used.

The idea behind Sidewalk Labs' icons is pretty simple. The company wants to create an image-based language that can quickly convey information to people the same way that street and traffic signs do. Icons on the signs would show if cameras or other devices are capturing video, images, audio or other information. Additionally, Sidewalk Labs plans to color-code the signs to highlight how the information is used. Yellow signs mean data being collected is identifiable while blue means it is de-identified before being used. Other colors could be introduced to convey any additional details.

The signs would also include a QR code that would display additional information about the data collection process in a given area. Citizens could scan the code and be presented with a detailed explanation of who is collecting data, the exact information they are sucking up from passersby and what they intend to use it for. It would also show how long the data is retained by the collector and how it is stored.

For Now, Sidewalk Labs' signs are just a concept. The first draft has been made publicly available on GitHub, and the company is planning to make tweaks over time. The signage in its current format will get a test run at the Sidewalk Labs offices in Toronto, and digital marketing company Soofa has agreed to demo the icons in a number of cities where it operates.