The City of Toronto should not turn smart meters into snitch meters, a globally-recognized privacy expert says.

Dr. Ann Cavoukian said Toronto Mayor John Tory’s comment that the city would “mine” residents’ water and hydro usage data to figure out how many homes are vacant – the first step in his proposal to levy a special property tax on speculators – raises privacy red flags.

“I’m so appalled by this because it’s people’s private information. That’s what private property means. It’s private,” said Cavoukian, a three-term Ontario privacy commissioner and the executive director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute at Ryerson University. “I just think they haven’t a clue what they’re doing here in terms of how inappropriate it is – it is completely contrary to the law.

“This is a terrible erosion of what we consider to be the concept of private property,” she said.

Tory told reporters that city staff are preparing a report on empty homes to determine if a speculator tax will be effective in slowing down the dizzying rise in Toronto home prices and opening up more properties for purchase or rent.

Premier Kathleen Wynne, in her budget this week, confirmed that her government not only intends to give Toronto the “broad authority to levy an additional property tax on vacant homes,” but is open to offering other municipalities the same power.

When asked to explain how the city would use water and hydro data to see if a home is empty, Tory spokesperson Don Peat said the mayor is waiting to receive a report from city staff on a possible vacant homes tax.

“The report – which the mayor requested – is expected to contain details on how the City would determine whether a home is vacant and any arising privacy issues,” Peat said in an email. “Until those details are available, it would be premature for the mayor to weigh in.”

Cavoukian said the mayor stated that he would “mine” the data, and she can’t see how the city can establish vacancy without violating the privacy rights of all property owners in a municipality.

“This is bulk surveillance. They’re going to cast a big net and go fishing and see what they catch – all without the knowledge or consent of the individuals involved,” she said. “They have no authority to do this.”

Information on how much water is used or electricity consumed can only be collected and used for the purpose originally intended – paying bills – and it’s unacceptable to use it for a secondary purpose, she said.

Even if the information is just used to determine the overall extent of the vacant unit problem, which she considered unlikely, it would still be an inappropriate use of the data, Cavoukian said.

Governments, in particular, must be very careful about how they use the information they collect, she said.

When former premier Dalton McGuinty brought in legislation mandating a smart meter on every home, Cavoukian said she met with him to raise her concern that people’s private information might be wirelessly transmitted and abused.

McGuinty agreed that it was important to put in strong controls right at the start, and the privacy commissioner went on to produce several papers on the issue and meet with hydro authorities to spell out the rules.

People often don’t realize what their electricity use says about them – like when they are in or their midnight TV watching habits, she said.

And what about snowbirds who are away for almost half the year, she asked.


“This is where the slippery slope starts. And that’s why I want to put the walls up right now. Don’t even contemplate doing this, Mr. Tory,” Cavoukian said.