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Flaw in WhatsApp exploited to target human rights lawyer, finds Citizen Lab

Lawyer has been embroiled in lawsuit against NSO Group, controversial Israeli technology firm

Flaw in WhatsApp exploited to target human rights lawyer, finds Citizen Lab

On May 12, a London-based human rights lawyer received peculiar video calls on his WhatsApp account while visiting Sweden.

Concerned by receiving the calls at such odd times in the morning, he reached out to cyber specialists at U of T’s Citizen Lab to investigate.

The Citizen Lab is a multidisciplinary research institute located at the Munk School for Global Affairs and Public Policy. The lab explores issues related to cybersecurity, surveillance, and digital censorship.

The lawyer, who remains anonymous due to fears of retaliation for speaking out, suspects potential foul play given his involvement with a civil lawsuit against NSO Group, an Israeli technology firm.

Foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates, have allegedly used NSO Group’s products to spy on journalists and political dissidents, including a critic of Saudi Arabia living in Canada.

According to reports from the Financial Times, the spyware targeting the lawyer’s phone had digital characteristics typical of NSO Group products.

Citizen Lab Senior Researchers John Scott-Railton and Bill Marczak led the investigative team that discovered WhatsApp’s vulnerability.

In an interview with The Varsity, Scott-Railton said he “observed a case where it looked like there was an attempt to target that lawyer’s phone with this novel attack, which would have happened over WhatsApp through a missed call.”

By exploiting the app’s vulnerability, NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware could enter a target’s iPhone or Android device through WhatsApp’s call function. The malicious code could then extract private information such as text messages and call histories, regardless of whether a target answers the call or not. The spyware can also collect new data by turning on the device’s camera or microphone.

 

WhatsApp’s response

WhatsApp engineers worked to patch the vulnerability as quickly as possible once they became aware of the susceptibility in the software. When finished, their company urged its 1.5 billion users to update their apps.

“WhatsApp encourages people to upgrade to the latest version of our app, as well as keep their mobile operating system up to date, to protect against potential targeted exploits designed to compromise information stored on mobile devices,” WhatsApp said in a public statement.  

The social network also informed the United States Department of Justice officials and issued a Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures notice to inform cybersecurity experts.

Scott-Railton praised WhatsApp for acting swiftly after discovering the vulnerability. “The way that WhatsApp has responded to this has been, I think, quite positive,” he said, noting how WhatsApp contacted a number of human rights organizations, which are common targets of the Pegasus spyware, before publicly announcing the security vulnerability.

According to Scott-Railton, this was an “unprecedented” move by a social media company and signals that it “felt there was something very wrong that had been done… and they didn’t like what they saw.”

It is unclear how many people were targeted or impacted by the vulnerability. However, based on WhatsApp’s comments, Scott-Railton said it seems like “there was a problem… [which was] much larger” than the attack on the human rights lawyer alone.

NSO Group promises reform

NSO Group maintains that it partners with governments to assist with law enforcement efforts and prevent criminal activity such as terrorism.

In response to reports that its software was targeting the human rights lawyer, NSO Group said that it “would not, or could not, use its technology in its own right to target any person or organization, including this individual.”

Earlier this year, NSO Group was partially acquired by the UK-based private equity fund Novalpina Capital. When Novalpina took over, it promised to reform the company in light of recent reports of suspected abuse.  

When the acquisition occurred, Novalpina was hoping to “establish a new benchmark for transparency and respect for human rights in full compliance with the [United Nations] Guiding Principal,” said Stephen Peel, co-founder of the fund.

Scott-Railton believes that “if indeed this was NSO, it suggests that this public story about human rights abuse may not [match up] with other things that we’ve observed.”

A bigger picture

Citizen Lab has been involved in multiple investigations tracking companies that sell spyware. Earlier this year, Citizen Lab itself had been targeted by undercover agents — masked as “socially conscious investors” — for its research on NSO Group.

Scott-Railton believes this case points to a larger trend of companies selling spyware to target individuals. “I think in the long run, we won’t really understand the digital risks and challenges that we all face until we see cases where harm happens to individuals,” he said.

“It’s very disconcerting to someone who has WhatsApp on their phones when they hear that there’s some company out there that’s selling a technology to basically use that as a way onto their phones, without any interaction,” Scott-Railton said.

“It’s almost unpreventable.”

U of T team wins top prize at KPMG’s international AI competition

Paramount AI team created device that sorts waste with 94 per cent accuracy

U of T team wins top prize at KPMG’s international AI competition

A team of five U of T graduate students named Paramount AI won first place in KPMG’s 2019 Ideation Challenge, a worldwide competition to develop solutions to problems facing businesses using artificial intelligence (AI). KPMG is one of the world’s top four accounting firms.

The U of T students faced off against 600 participants from top universities across nine countries, including Canada, Australia, China, Germany, Luxembourg, Italy, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

The final round was held from May 10–12 in Amsterdam, where the students — Maharshi Trivedi, Nikunj Viramgama, Aakash Iyer, Vaibhav Gupta, and Ganesh Vedula — won the top prize for their innovation, which used AI to automate waste segregation.

Paramount AI’s innovative solution

The winning innovation is a sorting system able to distinguish between three different categories of waste: recycling, organic, and garbage.

Iyer, who is specializing in data analytics and financial engineering, explained that the initial prototype of the system used LED light bulbs and basic circuits to classify the waste.

The five students worked continuously, with little breaks and limited sleep during the three days of the competition, which came at the expense of exploring Amsterdam.

The reward for their efforts came in the confirmation of the practicality of using the system in real-life situations. The device completed both a financial and market analysis by the end of the competition.

The importance of waste segregation

Viramgama, who is specializing in data analytics and data science, explained that the team chose to focus on the issue of waste segregation because they were concerned about improper sorting in Toronto.

He noted that about one in three residents in Toronto contaminate the waste they place in recycling bins, and that 20 per cent of waste placed in blue recycling bins ends up in a landfill.

Since there is limited landfill space, this has motivated government spending on improved waste management. An increase in spending may lead to a raise in taxes,which makes the emergence of automation in waste segregation something that can greatly benefit our waste management.

The U of T team tackled this issue by creating a system that accurately sorts waste about 94 per cent of the time. Current waste systems have an accuracy of only up to 74 per cent, and each percentage of accuracy translates to significant savings for spending on waste management.

The pressing need for a solution to this environmental problem, which has economic consequences, could be a reason why Paramount AI won the competition.

The other reason, explained Vedula, was that the team was “not only thinking about saving the environment, but… also trying to help businesses [maximize] profits.”

The future of Paramount AI

The next step for Paramount AI is to present their prototype to experts at KPMG’s annual AI summit in October. By then, the team hopes to further develop their model, aiming to continue increasing the accuracy of their system, while likely adding new features to increase the value of the product for potential clients.

The students currently have the intellectual property rights of their invention. With the support of KPMG, the team is interested in looking to commercialize their product.

They are also optimistic about the future of AI in positively shaping the lives of Torontonians, as a whole. “We completely believe that in the next few years, we will see AI being integrated in every part of our lives, because there is a huge potential,” said Vedula.

“[AI] is already involved in making our lives easier.”

Where computers and clinics intersect

Raw Talk Podcast hosts expert panel discussions about AI’s role in healthcare

Where computers and clinics intersect

Experts in medicine, academia, and industry explored the promises and perils of the applications of artificial intelligence (AI) in health care during panel discussions with the Raw Talk Podcast on May 7. The event was organized by graduate students of U of T’s Institute of Medical Science.

The two panels, collectively named “Medicine Meets Machine: The Emerging Role of AI in Healthcare,” aimed to demystify sensationalism and clarify misconceptions about the growing field of study.

“On one hand, it seems like everyone has heard about [AI],” said Co-executive Producer Grace Jacobs. “But on the other hand, it seems like there’s a lot of misunderstanding and misconceptions that are quite common.”

How AI is used in health care

While discussing the reality of AI, several panelists emphasized that it should be viewed and treated as a tool. “It is statistics where you don’t have to predefine your model exactly,” said Dr. Jason Lerch of the University of Oxford.

Other speakers agreed that AI is an expansion of — or a replacement for — traditional statistics, image processing, and risk scores, as it can provide doctors with more robust and accurate information. However, final health care recommendations and decisions remain in the hands of doctors and patients.

“You always need a pilot,” said Dr. Marzyeh Ghassemi, a U of T assistant professor of computer science and medicine.

But what advantages can this tool provide? Ghassemi thinks it can assimilate clues from a wider range of patients’ conditions to predict treatment outcomes, replacing the experience-based intuition that doctors currently rely on.

Speaking on her time in the Intensive Care Unit as an MIT PhD student, Ghassemi said, “A patient would come in, and I swear they would look to me exactly the same as prior patients, and the… senior doctors would call it. They would say, ‘oh, this one’s not going to make it. They’re going to die.’ And I would say, ‘Okay… why?’ And they said, ‘I’m not sure. I have a sense.’”

“They used different words — gestalt, sense — but they all essentially said the same thing. ‘I just — I have a sense.'”

Doctors develop this sense by seeing many cases during their training, but they can intuit only the cases that they had personally experienced; AI algorithms can potentially understand many more cases using a wider dataset.

Accessing those cases requires access to patient data, and access to data requires conversations about consent and privacy. Ghassemi and Dr. Sunit Das, a neurosurgeon at St. Michael’s Hospital and Scientist at the Keenan Research Centre for Biomedical Science, said that “de-identification” — the removal of information that can be traced back to individual identities — protects privacy.

Large de-identified datasets from the United States and the United Kingdom are available for AI research, but generally, Canada lags behind these countries in making health data available for this purpose.

Dr. Alison Paprica, Vice-President of Health Strategy and Partnerships at the Vector Institute, agreed that data should be used for research, but argued that de-identification alone does not eliminate risk.

“You’re not just giving a dataset to anybody,” she said. “You’re giving a dataset to people who are extremely skilled at finding relationships and patterns and maybe piecing together information in ways that most people couldn’t. So I think there’s going to be heightened sensitivity around re-identification risk.”

Society must manage this risk and balance it against the benefits. “How do we balance that?” Paprica asked. She suggested that consulting all involved stakeholders could help strike that equilibrium.

Advice for scientists aiming to use AI in their research

So what advice did the panelists have for scientists hoping to harness the power of AI in their own research?

Ghassemi stressed the importance of knowing what you’re doing: researchers have created many tools that make AI research easy to implement, but conscientious scientists need to know the statistical and training principles behind the methods.

“If you’re not aware of how these things are trained,” she said, “it’s really easy to misuse them. Like, shockingly easy to misuse them.”

Other panelists advised users to take care when choosing data to train the algorithms. “A learning algorithm can’t overcome bad data that goes in, or can’t completely overcome it,” said Lerch.

Moderator Dr. Shreejoy Tripathy summed up a key takeaway on applying AI to health care: “Understand your data… And understand your algorithms.”

Mikerah Quintyne-Collins on forging her own path to the blockchain scene

U of T dropout reflects on getting started with blockchain, formal education, and research

Mikerah Quintyne-Collins on forging her own path to the blockchain scene

Right before Christmas last year, then U of T math and statistics student Mikerah Quintyne-Collins received over $100,000 USD in cryptocurrency from Ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin and promptly dropped out of U of T.

In a Twitter thread between cryptocurrency developers in December, Quintyne-Collins tweeted to Buterin, “I will quite literally drop out if we got $100k in ETH.” She asked and she received.

After dropping out, Quintyne-Collins, a programmer, researcher, and blockchain enthusiast, switched to working full-time at ChainSafe, a Toronto-based startup that works on blockchain applications, such as automatically enforced smart contracts. Blockchain is a decentralized method of securely storing data that relies on cryptography, the math behind encoding and decoding messages securely.

Ethereum is the second-largest cryptocurrency by market capital, next to Bitcoin. At the time of the transaction, the 1,000 Ether that Buterin sent Quintyne-Collins had a value of $100,630 USD. Now, that same amount is worth around $174,000 USD.

Buterin is a university dropout himself, having left the University of Waterloo in 2014 to work on Ethereum full-time after receiving $100,000 USD through the Thiel Fellowship, a grant awarded annually to people aged 22 and under to drop out of school and pursue full-time work.

These days, Quintyne-Collins is pretty busy with her job, working to develop a platform that may eventually be a part of a new version of Ethereum.

“The main thing that I miss about university [is] Goldring,” she said.

While her mother had wanted her to return to her studies, Quintyne-Collins does not see the need. “People haven’t asked me about my degree. In fact, every time I tell somebody I dropped out to work on Ethereum, they just say, ‘Congrats.’”

“I know myself well enough to know that this is better for me, rather than taking courses I’m not interested in,” she told BreakerMag.

When I asked about her ambitions and plans, Quintyne-Collins said that she was going to “go with the flow.”

Even before university, much of her efforts had been focused outside of school. She taught herself how to code when she was 13 by borrowing library books. Bitcoin then piqued her interest around 2011 when she was in high school and it first made the news; this prompted her to start reading research papers on cryptography.

She became more involved in blockchain during her second year, when Buterin came to U of T for a talk on crypto-economics. This also brought her in touch with ChainSafe, where she would eventually start working part-time as a project lead while continuing her studies.

Before dropping out, Quintyne-Collins was also President of the U of T Blockchain Group and had co-organized a number of blockchain hackathons. Even after dropping out, she helped host this year’s ETHUofT hackathon alongside the group’s current president. This is where I met Quintyne-Collins, as I was volunteering with registration on a Friday evening in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

She believes that universities are more useful for forming connections than learning. She added that a number of top universities have materials and resources available online for free.

“This last semester, I wasn’t doing… any schoolwork, to be honest. I might have failed some courses,” she told me.

That being said, she would not encourage just anybody to drop out and find work. “If you have nothing else going for you, then your GPA is pretty much all you have.”

Quintyne-Collins was admitted to the first-year computer science stream when she started at U of T but chose not to pursue the program of study. “I wasn’t going to pay the extra tuition… If you can get a degree for 8k a year versus 15k a year and end up with the same job, who’s the idiot? The person who paid more for it.”

She has also co-authored a study published in the STEM Fellowship Journal and is currently conducting research with a fellow U of T dropout working in blockchain. They are not sure about which journals to publish in yet, but it will at least be on arXiv, an open-access digital repository of research papers.

“For computer science, it doesn’t really matter that much,” she said, referring to the publication they will ultimately choose.

When asked how to get involved in the blockchain scene and get one’s foot in the door, Quintyne-Collins said, “Contribute to open source projects and attend events if you’re technical. And if you’re non-technical, you should organize the events.”

She emphasized the need for talent in the scene beyond just computer science, but also in communication and outreach. “If you’re good at building communities and bringing people together, that’s just as important as being able to write code.”

“This happened so close to home”: students call on administration to take action on mental health

Protest outside Simcoe Hall comes day after public death by suicide at Bahen

“This happened so close to home”: students call on administration to take action on mental health

Content warning: this article contains mentions of suicide.

In the wake of a public death by suicide on campus last night, students are demanding urgent attention to mental health at the University of Toronto. Approximately 100 students gathered outside Simcoe Hall on Monday afternoon, meeting what they perceive as silence from the university administration on mental health with their own solemn silence.

Toronto emergency services were called to the Bahen Centre for Information Technology on Sunday night in response to a medical emergency, after a student fell from high in the building’s atrium. Toronto Police have ruled the death to be non-suspicious and non-criminal. This marks the second death by suicide in the past year at the Bahen Centre, a hub for students studying computer science and engineering at U of T.

Congregating outside Simcoe Hall at 2:00 pm, the protest grew in numbers until shortly after 3:00 pm, when students moved inside to sit on the second floor of the administration building. Students were seen holding signs with slogans including “the university is complicit” and “you can’t ignore us forever.” A number of media outlets, including CBC and CTV, were also present.

By 5:00 pm, students had moved across King’s College Circle to the Medical Sciences Building, where a Governing Council Business Board meeting was taking place. The Business Board meeting was originally scheduled to take place at Simcoe Hall, but the location was changed on short notice.

Padraic Berting, a third-year student, was one of the organizers of the protest. “This is an issue that’s very personal to me,” Berting said, noting that this was the third death by suicide on campus in the past year that he was aware of.

Berting is disappointed that the university administration seems unwilling to recognize what he and many others are calling a “mental health crisis” on campus. “I felt that the only way to actually do something was to try and make it more of a public statement,” he said. “So that they will be publicly compelled to do something.”

Second-year student Sabrina Brathwaite came out to the protest “because there have been a number of deaths on campus” and that “there must be an emphasis on action and policy change.”

“I’m somewhat cynical in terms of student protests and admin changing things, but I think it’s better than nothing, and I think that at the very least it shows that there are people who care,” Brathwaite said. “A protest like this will show admin that people are watching.”

Sana Mohtadi, a second-year student, went to the protest “to see the sheer magnitude of the mental health crisis at U of T.”

“It’s incredible to see such solidarity on a campus that often feels really isolated,” Mohtadi said. “I thought it was a great starting point for renewing a conversation about mental health on campus.”

The two deaths at Bahen are inseparable from the computer science student community. The intense pressure that computer science students are put under, both to be accepted to the subject program of study and succeed in the competitive program, have a number of people questioning how it may contribute to poor mental health.

“I think that there’s ways that the program is more stressful than it has to be,” said Maxwell Garrett, a second-year Computer Science student who was at the protest. Garrett is saddened by the deaths in Bahen, a space in which he and many others in the computer science program spend much of their time. “It’s a little stressful, just knowing that two students have ended their life there,” Garrett said.

Anam Alvi, a fourth-year Computer Science student present at the protest, was studying in Bahen last night when the death occurred. Alvi came out to the protest because she wants to put pressure on the university to recognize that “people aren’t okay with this lack of acknowledgement and lack of action,” even if it means hurting the reputation of the university.

“It’s incredibly hard to realize that this happened so close to home, that this is someone in our community,” Alvi said. “This is a building that so many people in our program commune around, it’s such a safe space for all of us.”

Alvi can’t see herself going back to Bahen anytime soon. “It changes what it means to be there, at least for the time being.”

SHANNA HUNTER/THE VARSITY

Janine Robb, Executive Director of the Health & Wellness Centre at U of T, said that the centre had been working hard to provide support to students impacted by the recent death, including accepting short-notice appointments and bringing in an outside provider to be on campus today for extra support.

Robb acknowledged the “tragic accident” that occurred at Bahen and reiterated that the university is unable to share any more details at this time because the victim’s family has not provided permission for the university to do so.

“We’re really focused more on students who witnessed or who are affected by what happened,” Robb said.

Speaking about the availability of mental health resources on campus, a subject of scrutiny from many of the students at the protest, Robb said that Health & Wellness “provides and allocates counsellors as soon as we are aware of the situation.”

“We take mental health very seriously, and we’re certainly aware of it being a tragic and common problem in our society and in our community,” Robb said. “I would tell you that it’s a public health issue. I think my staff are doing a very good job of responding to the need.”

“To me it seems we’re never seen as supportive enough, despite our best efforts, and I’m just not sure how to change the dialogue on that,” Robb said.

Joshua Grondin, Vice-President University Affairs of the University of Toronto Students’ Union, said that he raised the issue of emergency mental health supports on campus in a January meeting with the Office of the Vice-Provost Students. Grondin specifically suggested that a safety net or barrier be installed at Bahen and proposed that the university investigate implementing 24-hour counselling services at Robarts Library during the months of March and April.

“I mentioned specifically that I was worried someone would duplicate what was done by a student earlier this year,” Grondin said, and that he told the administration he “thought these barriers could prevent another person from doing the same thing.”

While the protest today was characterized by silence, some students believe that frank words are the way to bring about change. “I think people who were there need to talk about what they heard, what they saw,” Alvi said. “I think it will bring gravity to the situation.”


If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:

  • Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
  • Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
  • Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
  • Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
  • U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.

Warning signs of suicide include:

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

— With files from Josie Kao

Disorder in Computer Science Student Union amid resignations, dissolution of General Council

Unaffiliated system of “committees” also operating parallel to course union

Disorder in Computer Science Student Union amid resignations, dissolution of General Council

In recent months, the Computer Science Student Union (CSSU) has been affected by multiple executive resignations, the dissolution of its General Council due to an alleged lack of involvement and communication, and the creation of an unregulated, loosely-organized system of “committees” operating parallel to the course union.

The CSSU is a course union that represents over 1,200 students who are taking a Computer Science (CS) course or are enrolled in the CS programs of study. Its executives are elected each spring for the next academic year.

Resignations

The first resignation to hit the union came on November 16, when CS student Ignas Panero Armoska left his role as the Director of Social Events.

“I worked really hard on frosh over the summer and then a bunch of social events, but it actually turned out that I was also doing a lot of infrastructure-related tasks that were not under my purview at all,” he said in an interview with The Varsity.

Panero Armoska noted that these tasks included onboarding people to manage office-related assignments and helping run academic events.

Panero Armoska’s departure was followed by that of President David Ansermino, who left his position effective December 21.

Explaining his resignation, Ansermino said that he had to leave since he is working full-time at a startup. “We’ve certainly got a lot on our plates right now, and I’m kind of an integral part of that… Trying to manage my responsibilities became difficult.”

Ansermino was replaced by Vice-President Calvin Luo, who in turn hired Panero Armoska as the Acting Vice-President in order “to provide a more stable leadership team,” given the departures. The Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU), which oversees course unions such as the CSSU, suggested that the CSSU hold a by-election to replace Ansermino or have Luo take over in an interim capacity.

Treasurer Taylor Stinson also departed in December, according to a statement from Luo.

“[Stinson] and I agreed that at this moment, the Executive Council of the CSSU should be filled with people involved with the community and dedicated to improving it,” Luo wrote.

Stinson was replaced by Borna Salman, the former CSSU community store manager. Stinson could not be reached for comment.

Dissolution of the CSSU General Council

In the same statement announcing Ansermino’s resignation, Luo said that the course union was dissolving its General Council and seeking applications for new members to serve. According to Panero Armoska, members of the council were generally inactive.

Members of the council are appointed by the CSSU executive in the fall and are comprised of people “who want to take an active role in helping make decisions for the CSSU and organizing CSSU initiatives,” according to Panero Armoska.

The reasoning behind the dissolution was to have a smaller team that facilitated better communication.

Following the dissolution of the old council, the current executive interviewed new applicants and hired six people, including some who were re-hired from the previous council.

According to ASSU President Haseeb Hassaan, ASSU did not know about the dissolution of the council until reached by The Varsity in early February.

Since then, ASSU has spoken with the CSSU and was “informed that the Council was not active,” wrote Hassaan. He added, “This council is appointed/hired by the Executive as per their Constitution so it is up to them to make that decision.”

A system of “committees”

Aside from the wave of resignations and the dissolution of General Council, the CSSU has also been affected by the appearance of a system of loosely-organized “committees.” Unaffiliated with the union, they were started independently by CS student Aniket Sengupta-Kali early last semester and “formally launched” in January.

The committees are meant to be “a very simple way of getting involved” with the community because there hasn’t historically been a way to do that, said Sengupta-Kali.

“It’s kind of a loose organization,” he said. “We’re not trying to formalize too too much because we’re still trying to work things out with the CSSU, because most of the people involved do want this to be officialized as part of the union.”

He added, “It’s just that it has to be on terms that everyone finds reasonable and that will facilitate more involvement in the future.”

The committees are organized through Slack, a professional messaging platform, and cover topics such as coding events, mental health, and socials.

Despite not formally being part of the CSSU and operating in parallel to it, Panero Armoska said the committees organized by Sengupta-Kali were trying to advertise at U of T Hacks, an annual hackathon where Panero Armoska was serving as an executive.

He also said that the committees “were communicating with the department” on behalf of the CSSU, despite not being an official representative of the CSSU.

“We’re not opposed to them — like 100 per cent student involvement is great and in fact we’re going to be working on making more opportunities available within the CSSU,” Panero Armoska remarked. “But… we literally are trying to get the CSSU more organized and have a better structure and stability right now and we can’t endorse events that we literally did not organize or are at or anything like that because it can really poorly reflect on us.”

According to him, the CSSU has met with representatives of the committees, including Sengupta-Kali.

However, Sengupta-Kali denied claims that the committees were passing themselves off as representatives of the CSSU.

“Constantly, we’ve been trying to assert that no, we’re not trying to be a rival CSSU or usurp the CSSU,” he said, “but we do want to see CSSU change a bit in terms of how it accepts community involvement and how can get involved.”

Despite these leadership shuffles, Panero Armoska noted that the CSSU is continuing to operate and hold events.

Student-led petition calls for separate Computer Science convocation

Petition had over 800 signatures

Student-led petition calls for separate Computer Science convocation

Computer Science (CS) students started an online petition calling for a review to hold a separate convocation for the department. The petition, titled “Let CS Graduate Together!” proposed that students be given the option to graduate with other students from their department. Currently, CS students graduate with other students from the college to which they belong.

After three months of petitioning, the student-led petition received 809 signatures.

Professional faculties and Rotman Commerce are the only undergraduate divisions with their own ceremonies.

“Members of the committee are aware of the petition and are considering and taking concerns from Computer Science students,” said Elizabeth Church, Interim Director of U of T Media Relations.

“The review is also including a survey of graduates at this year’s spring and fall convocations,” said Church, adding that they also contacted recent alumni and five student governments for comment.

Lana El Sanyoura, a fourth-year CS student and organizer of the petition, spoke with The Varsity regarding her concerns about current convocation procedures and what led her to creating the petition page.

“As Computer Science students, we spend so much of our time working together, so many of our courses are group-based, and we spend hours, even go past midnight, working in the Computer Labs at the Bahen Centre. We also take a majority of Computer Science courses, and have a strong, thriving, localized community that lies within the Bahen Centre, with the student union office, study lounges, computer labs, classes, and professor offices all in one place,” said El Sanyoura in an email.

“However, on the most important day of our academic careers, we are not there for each other at Convocation, because we are graduating with our Colleges.”

El Sanyoura also pointed out that the CS department shares similar features with Rotman Commerce, namely deregulated fees, a grade-based admission process, and a Professional Experience Year Co-op Program, which grants students the option of interning for 12–16 months after their second or third year. Rotman Commerce, unlike CS, has its own convocation.

“This petition could give students the chance to celebrate their undergraduate experience with the community of students and faculty that they had been working along-side of through it all,” continued El Sanyoura.

Ignas Panero Armoska, a second-year CS student, shared the same community sentiment as Sanyoura, expressing a closer connection to classmates in the department.

“I believe that I identify with the CS community so much more than my [college’s], to the point where when people describe how they feel connected to or are vested in their college, I realize that is a space I hold for my computer science community, much like the engineers do.”

Review process

The petition comes after the university announced a review for all upcoming convocations. U of T officials looked at current procedures such as venue size, number of guest tickets, diploma procedures, and whether or not each student should receive their diploma from the chancellor individually. The review also took into account the size of the university.

An advisory committee consisting of both academic staff and administrators from across all three campuses has been created. Among the committee members are Don MacMillan, Registrar at the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering; Silvia Rosatone, Director at the Office of Convocation; Sheree Drummond, Secretary of Governing Council; and Bryn MacPherson, Assistant Vice-President of the Office of the President & Chief of Protocol.

The committee will be looking at the factors and implications associated with the venue and ceremony procedures, such as accessibility services, budgeting, and inclusion of Indigenous culture.

The committee will be consulting with the 2018 spring and fall graduating classes, principals and deans, divisional faculty and staff, and the alumni community regarding final decisions.

Students and staff can submit comments or suggestions to the advisory committee through an online form by November 30. An interim report will be presented in December and a final report is expected to be delivered early next year.

Editor’s note (25/10): This article has been corrected to clarify that the petition did not have a target number of signatures.

U of T Blockchain Group presents Blockfest

Students will explore applications of new technology through workshops and talks

U of T Blockchain Group presents Blockfest

U of T Blockfest, a student-run hackathon focusing on blockchain ecosystems, will be held October 12–14 in the Bahen Centre for Information Technology.

The 36-hour hackathon will introduce students to blockchain technology and its applications.

Blockchain is the technology behind cryptocurrency and it functions as a decentralized ledger of encrypted records — ‘blocks’ — connected chronologically in a series — a ‘chain’ — that cannot be easily tampered with by any one entity. Among other potential applications, it could be used to track goods in a complex supply chain.

The Varsity sat down with Stephanie Zhang, Vice-President of the U of T Blockchain Group and co-organizer of the event, to discuss the importance of hackathons, blockchain, and how students can get involved.

“We’re trying to foster a friendly environment where students are helping students, mentors are helping students, and students are given the resources that they need so that they are able to make sense of… things that they might not be able to make sense of on their own,” said Zhang. “We just want people to collaborate.”

When asked about the value of blockchain, Zhang answered, “Toronto is actually a really, really bustling place in the blockchain industry,” noting that Vitalik Buterin, the creator of cryptocurrency Ethereum, is from Toronto.

“Toronto actually has a lot of growing companies,” continued Zhang, “and they’re all looking for student developer talent.”

“What we want to do is to better prepare our students to be able to take the jobs that are openly available for them, and maybe even get them interested in developing on blockchain, so that they are able to then continually develop better and better infrastructure for these platforms,” she added.

This kind of focus and student direction, according to Zhang, is what distinguishes U of T Blockfest from other, larger hackathons.

Blockfest will host workshops to help participants find ideas that interest them. Participants will be able to form groups of up to four, and mentors will be on hand to support them through the completion of their projects until the end of the hackathon.

“We’re also going to be posting resources on the Slack before the event, so students can start messing around with it themselves before they come into the hackathon,” she added.

Zhang fondly remembered a story from EthUofT, a hackathon that she had helped organize in March.

“Last year, we had a first-year student walk onto the hackathon, [and] ask what was going on.”

“He was like, ‘What’s going on here? Oh, it’s a hackathon. What’s a hackathon about? Oh, can I join?’”

He was added to a team and, according to Zhang, the student learned to program through workshops and talks, and executed a project with the help of teammates within 36 hours. 

Zhang encourages interested students to participate, and to not be concerned if they are unfamiliar with blockchain technology.

“It’s okay if you don’t build anything as long as you’re there to learn, because the whole goal of our hackathon is for you to learn something,” said Zhang.

Students can now register at uoftblockfest.com to participate in the hackathon, which will be held at Bahen from October 12–14. Those interested in volunteering at Blockfest or helping out with future hackathons can email contact@uoftbg.ca.