“In order to serve you better”: promises and pitfalls of the GDPR

How the European Union reshaped digital privacy law — and clogged your inbox

“In order to serve you better”: promises and pitfalls of the GDPR

During the last few days of May, I, like many of us, received waves of emails and notifications informing me that the privacy policies of my favourite applications and websites were updating.

Steam told me it had added a new privacy policy with “explanations” of the types of data they collect. PayPal informed me it was “updating and streamlining” its privacy policy. I received an email from MeUndies with the subject line “Updates to our Privacy Policy,” but the body of the email was an ad for its new line of sweatpants.

I clicked through them, agreeing to the changes with little more than a glance and a swipe.

This annoying mass of emails were the direct result of a new law that began to be enforced on May 25 by the European Union (EU) called the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). While the GDPR marks a stark shift towards stricter regulation within the tech industry, many believe it’s too late. Perhaps many more are simply indifferent.

In the spirit of online privacy, I decided to dig into the GDPR to understand how, if at all, it could affect us. And, will it matter?  

A ‘techlash’ in full swing

The GDPR comes at a time when technology companies are under sharp criticism. Such criticism is unprecedented tech behemoths have previously regarded as an all-powerful force.

In 2017, the consumer credit reporting agency Equifax announced a security breach that impacted 145.5 million people in the US. Hackers gained access to Equifax customer’s sensitive information, including their medical histories, social security numbers, bank account information, and license numbers.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal, reported by The New York Times in March, showed how the data firm harvested information from 87 million Facebook profiles to build voter profiles for the 2016 Trump presidential campaign. The leak resulted in significant outrage, which culminated in Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress.

Meanwhile, the hashtag #DeleteFacebook trended on Twitter. Despite this, however, Facebook has seen little drop in its user base or profits and its stock saw a 4.5 per cent increase throughout the duration of Zuckerberg’s testimony.

A few months ago, at its annual Google I/O event, Google announced the creation of an artificial intelligence product called Google Duplex. The technology allows computers to make lifelike phone calls, fooling humans into believing they’re speaking with a person. While those in the Google audience cheered, the backlash was already forming on Twitter: had Google gone too far?

For the first time, widespread skepticism has plagued the tech industry. An unprecedented pattern has emerged: tech giants are repeatedly apologizing, accepting blame for their mistakes, and admitting they have overstepped regardless of if it was intentional or not.

The criticism is underlined by the realization that technology is progressing at a rapid pace — whether we like it or not. From smart homes and the internet of things, to artificial intelligence and social media moguls, tech companies have become larger than ever.  As companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon increase in size and capability, it’s important that privacy legislation evolves alongside them.

Legal ramifications

It is within this privacy-sensitive environment that the GDPR comes into play. Some say the GDPR is the strongest protector of user-rights the world has seen, while others wave it off as nothing more than a public relations stunt. PayPal co-founder and Silicon Valley star Peter Thiel said that Europe created the law out of “jealousy” of the success of US tech companies.  

Nevertheless, after four years of consultation with relevant stakeholders, the GDPR was adopted by the EU Parliament in 2016. The complete law is 11 chapters long, with 99 sub-articles.

The foundation of the GDPR has three parts. First, companies need the consent of users to collect their data. Second, users must only share data that is necessary to make a service work; for example, while Uber needs the location of your phone to function properly, the service would not need your relationship status from Facebook or your employment history on LinkedIn. Third, users must have the ability to revoke their consent at any point in time and pull their data completely.

The legislation also states that companies must notify users within 72 hours if there is a security breach.

Today, companies must comply with the legislation. If they fail to do so, they could be fined up to four per cent of their annual global revenue — for Facebook, that amounts to about $1.6 billion.

Understanding the potentially significant adjustments they would have to make, the EU gave companies two years to adjust their platforms for compliance. Within these two years, many companies hired firms that specialized in the GDPR to ensure they were correctly following the dense and arguably complex law.

UnitedLex is one of these firms. In an interview with The Verge, the chief privacy officer of UnitedLex, Jason Straight, said: “There are some companies we’ve talked to, where they say, ‘Are you kidding? If we told them how we were using their data, they’d never give it to us in the first place.’”

Straight would respond: “Yeah, that’s sort of the point.”   

For many companies, the law is extremely significant because it may force a shift in their business models. There is a common tradeoff between many social media companies and users: the product or service remains free, while the companies sell our data to advertisers. Our data allows companies to target us with advertisements based on our education, interests, circle of friends, and more. In this model, the user is the product being sold.  

Felan Parker, an Assistant Professor of Book and Media Studies at U of T specializing in digital media, film, and games, wrote in an email to The Varsity that this idea is called “audience commodity.”

“As many other critics and scholars have pointed out, high-profile data ‘breaches’ like Cambridge Analytica are not really aberrations or exceptions, but business as usual,” wrote Parker.

Under the GDPR, the business model based on “audience commodity” might have to be adjusted by social media companies if users are unwilling to give up their information.

TROY LAWRENCE/THE VARSITY

Does the law even matter?

Given the borderless nature of the internet, it is not entirely clear how the law will affect those of us outside of the EU. Many companies are making service changes even if they are not based in the EU; others are choosing to suspend certain services to their European customers.

A great deal of these changes are because international companies truly do not know how the law may affect them. Eliminating large portions of usership or radically shifting a service to comply with the law are large changes for businesses, and represent the potential for a new era of cross-border legal regulations.

If the law does impact us in Canada, will it be significant? Many companies are already skirting the rules.

For example, while most companies that emailed us were notifying us of changes to their privacy policies, some were using emails as our implied consent. The New York Times reported that the question-and-answer website Quora used an email notifying users of privacy updates as a form of consent. “Your continued use of the service will be considered acceptance of our updated terms,” read Quora’s email.

Other companies are taking advantage of ‘pop-up fatigue,’ knowing the majority of people will click through the updates without careful consideration.

On the day the GDPR came into effect, Facebook and Google were sued by Max Schrems, a privacy activist, claiming the two companies were coercing people into give their information. Additionally, on July 2, the European Consumer Organization, a pan-European consumer group, released a report outlining how the updated privacy policies from companies like Facebook and Google are not meeting the requirements of the GDPR in full. Clearly, the law is not fully effective in practice.

When asked if it is a company’s responsibility to protect users’ privacy or if it is the responsibility of users themselves, Parker responded that it is “complicated.”

“Outside of regulation, which they staunchly oppose, the major platforms have not had all that much incentive to change the way they do things or be more transparent,” he explained. “Facebook hasn’t seen a significant drop in its userbase or profits. They are monopolies and are practically too big to fail.”

In an email to The Varsity, Leslie Shade, a Professor at U of T’s Faculty of Information, wrote that, under the GDPR, it is the company’s responsibility to provide “clear, transparent privacy policies.” Shade noted that there are a “range of literacies” involved when making an accessible policy, from describing legal jargon to aesthetics and design.

“Issues of digital inclusion play in here as well,” wrote Shade, referring to the accessibility concerns companies face when creating new privacy policies that adhere to the GDPR.

Protecting your privacy

Fundamentally, the GDPR represents a stark shift in societal attitudes towards our digital privacy. For that reason alone, the law is significant.

“Privacy is an essential aspect of human dignity and autonomy,” wrote Shade. “It’s part of our freedoms, it’s intrinsic to citizenship. It’s a social value. It’s something we want to control.”

In light of the law, many companies are adding new tools to allow users to see information about their data. Many of these tools are largely unknown, yet they offer a new degree of awareness of the information companies have about you knowledge that was previously clouded with secrecy.

Microsoft has released “Privacy Dashboard,” Twitter has added “Your Privacy Data” and the option to opt-out of interest-based ads, and Facebook introduced “Privacy Checkup” and “Ads” to see which advertisers have access to your data.  

Additionally, there are plenty of resources available outlining ways to secure your digital information. The Citizen Lab, a research lab at U of T specializing in cyberspace and security, has come out with a tool called Security Planner, which has plenty of solutions to help ensure you’re protecting yourself online. The recommendations vary from using two-factor authentication to obtaining a privacy screen when you’re using your laptop in public.

As well, The Varsity’s own student’s guide to protecting your information online lists services that balance privacy with convenience.

Given that the GDPR is still in its early stages, it is still unclear what impact it will have in the long term. “Facebook and the other major platforms will comply with the GDPR laws, and [they] have made some steps towards greater transparency and privacy controls for users worldwide, but it remains to be seen how much this will change their underlying business practices,” wrote Parker.

Moving forward, users should take advantage of privacy tools, despite the difficulties associated with keeping track of which companies have what information about you. The tech landscape is undoubtedly growing and privacy legislation should follow suit. The GDPR is a step in that direction so go forth and read those pesky emails.

The apps that make us better students

Four students break down their favourite study applications

The apps that make us better students

Hypertabs is The Varsity’s online features subsection about all things internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities.


Like planning out your entire life? Say hello to Trello

As someone who enjoys being scared straight by the extent of their own procrastination, I work best when I can see all my tasks laid out in front of me. I’ve learned the hard way that having individual Google documents, calendar e-vites, and to-do list apps all scattered across your hard drive and the cloud like easter eggs is no way to go.

Earlier this year, a good friend of mine recommended Trello and thereby set me firmly on the path to organizational success. A delightful cross between a calendar, a to-do-list, and a Pinterest collection, Trello allows users to create boards for different categories and projects as well as organize information within those boards using lists and cards. With features for deadlines, checklists, and attachments, Trello is perfect for compiling all of your tasks in one place. Also, everything is synced to the cloud; you can use the app for personal matters or share boards with other users if you’re working collaboratively.

The best thing about Trello is its versatility: you can use it for managing a team, planning a vacation, or virtually anything else that requires organizing and categorizing information. As a student, I’ve found Trello to be perfect for keeping all of my deadlines straight. I have boards for schoolwork, job applications, and scholarships, and I’ve set up a queue list for each project according to its due date. When I start working on something, I move it to an ‘in progress’ list; when I finish it, it goes into the archives. And of course, everything is colour-coded to differentiate between projects. I know I’m a huge nerd, but thanks to Trello, I’m the most organized nerd you’ll ever meet.

If you’re looking for something to organize day-to-day tasks, Trello might be less suitable than a to-do list app like Todoist. But seeing all of your work laid out in front of you pops the comfortable bubble of ambiguity that can be conducive to procrastination. For those of us who regularly hand things in 30 seconds before a deadline, Trello might just be the kick in the pants we need to get smaller tasks out of the way before the semester gets viciously hectic. Install the app on desktop and mobile, write those five research papers, and congratulations, you’re a model student.

Teodora Pasca

 

Organizing with EverNote

I am a sucker for all things Moleskine. It’s part of some over-romanticized vision of academia. So when I came across the EverNote and Moleskine collaboration in the U of T Bookstore, I saw it as the perfect excuse to further feed my notebook collection.

The notebooks are meant to be used with the EverNote app. But after purchasing the notebooks, I realized I could use the app with really any notebook.

While the app is simple, I personally love that I can take pictures of my notes and organize them easily. The idea is that you scan the notebooks with your phone, then tag them and organize the pages in file folders on your phone. So when it comes time to study for exams, you’ll have all your notes organized. The ability to tag your notes makes it so that you can search through all your uploads for a specific lecture topic or key term.

Though I am steadfast in my love of taking notes by hand, I am not the most organized. I have too many notebooks and loose leaf papers. At the end of the semester I always end up with a stack of unfiled papers, hoping that I didn’t lose any of my lecture notes. Every semester I promise myself I will be more organized or type out a separate copy of my notes but never do. EverNote allows my handwritten notes to be uploaded to a cloud, giving me a sense of security.

It also has the additional function of keeping all of your lecture notes on your phone and in one place. You can upload word documents to the files, as well as scans. So, if you keep up with it, you should be able to have all your coursework filed in the same place.

I highly recommend this app for students who also prefer to take notes by hand or for students who have one of those professors that don’t allow computers. It might take a little extra time to scan the notes, but it’s a lot less time than having to rewrite them when you spill coffee or lose a notebook.

Chantel Ouellet

 

A website blocker with explicit messages is surprisingly motivating

I am my own worst enemy when it comes to finishing or even starting my assignments. I see the minutes on the bottom right corner of my screen change, reminding me that I am wasting my time, but I pacify my inner guilt with one more video, one more episode, one more scroll on Youtube, Netflix, Twitter, Tumblr, or Reddit.

I planned to stay my own worst enemy, but a fleeting moment of self-awareness forced me to download a website blocker at the beginning of the academic year. This way even if I overrode the website blocker, which I fully planned on doing I could at least have the semblance of working hard.

If my website blocker could talk, I’m sure it would laugh and then swear at my naïvety.

I downloaded Go Fucking Work, a website-blocking extension available for download from the Google Chrome store, for its pleasing aesthetic and amusing profanity. This extension, developed by Toronto-based developer and conversion consultant Alexander Lam, blocks websites blacklisted by the user and redirects them to a page with alternating heartfelt and motivational messages.

These messages range from: “Your dreams are dying. Go fucking work,” to “What the fuck? Go work,” to my personal favourite: “You’re not a Kardashian. Fucking work.”

These messages are written in black Montserrat font against a simple white background that is pleasing to the eye and available in 10 different languages if the user prefers to be told to go fucking work in Hindi.

Go Fucking Work offers the user the option of pausing the website blocking for periods of time that can range from five minutes to 48 hours. It is easy, however, to extend a break or pause for longer than the interval specified if the user doesn’t refresh the page. To avoid this, Go Fucking Work has integrated an option to enable force refreshing, and an option to disable pausing altogether so the user can go fucking work.

Zeahaa Rehman

 

Quizlet is the interactive and helpful tool that all students need

Quizlet is a helpful and free tool that has several notable features. You can use it to create flashcards, study sets, and diagrams. The tool is extremely helpful for visual learners or those who prefer to study on their laptops as opposed to pen and paper. You can use it on your computer or on mobile.

Interesting features of the the app include that it will give you study reminders, offer short and interactive study sessions, and reminds you about due dates. It also shows you your process of improvement. 

If you’re lucky, another user may have already created a set of flashcards with the information that you require in your own class. For instance, many users have created basic flashcards for introductory classes. Since introductory classes usually consider the basics of a certain subject, there is overlap in the teaching material, regardless of the institution.

Several users have created helpful flashcards and study guides for sociology classes such as Sociology of Families, Sociology of Gender, Sociology of Law, and more. If you prefer to make your own notes on paper, you can always use these study sets as a way of making sure that you have covered all of the material that you need.

Quizlet is not just useful for students. Instructors or teachers can create a room on the site and do a live quiz with their students. This tool can be used during review classes or as a fun way to interact with the class.

Quizlet seems to be a popular tool on campus. Why not try it out for yourself, if you haven’t already?

Aisha Malik

The real ticket masters

Ticket bots are banned in Ontario, and sellers have upgraded their technology to fend them off ­— but is this enough to win the arms race against the software?

The real ticket masters

I was literally refreshing my page from 9:58 to 10:01,” wrote user AdmiralRR on the U of T subreddit. “Still didn’t get a spot.”

Dozens of similar complaints cascaded on Reddit after tickets to Bernie Sanders’ October 29, 2017 health care talk at Convocation Hall sold out within seconds.

AdmiralRR speculated as to why the tickets were gone so quickly, pointing fingers: “Too many bots,” they wrote. “The eventbrite site has no anti-bot systems. For all we know, one guy could have gotten all of the tickets and might end up selling them.” Another user promptly debunked this notion: “They can’t resell them. They’re using the system to simply register names. If you don’t have ID that matches the name of the person who booked the tickets, you can’t get in.”

Whether or not ticket bots — software that can quickly acquire large amounts of tickets online, most of which are usually later resold at a price significantly above face value — had a role in the Bernie Sanders event, the topic itself has received much attention over the last few months. On December 13, 2017, the Ticket Sales Act was passed in Ontario. The act formally banned ticket bots and implemented secondary measures to reduce reselling incentives. Additionally, Ticketmaster has made significant upgrades to its technology to fend off the bots. Will these measures really be enough to win the arms race against ticket bots?

21st century scalping

Scalping has always existed in some shape or form since ticketing has existed. However, it has reached new dimensions with the shift to selling tickets online. Experts estimate that the global scalping industry is currently worth $8 billion.

It’s hard to believe this revenue was generated by scalpers sitting by their computers and buying their tickets one at a time. Rather, bots are snapping up huge amounts of tickets online by filling in the seller’s dropdown prompts in mere milliseconds. Many of these bots use a software called Optical Character Recognition — which is designed to recognize and input numbers and characters as a human does — to bypass CAPTCHA. CAPTCHA is the distorted text users must decode when purchasing tickets to verify that they are human.

However, a lot of ticket bots’ success comes from the grunt work that is completed before the software is written. Many scalpers study the underlying architecture of the Ticketmaster website, research presale passwords, or enrol in presale-specific credit cards.

This effort is rewarded by an ever-growing demand for tickets and resellers themselves. According to a recent CBC News article, StubHub, a ticket reselling website, offers attractive benefits to high-volume resellers, including “reducing its 10 per cent cut on each ticket sold” and providing “special software to upload and manage” large inventories of tickets.

Given the inherent unfair nature of ticket bots, what is being done to undermine these efforts?

JULIEN BALBONTIN/THE VARSITY

Stop the bots, stop the resellers

Legal officials in Ontario have taken steps they believe will curtail the use of ticket bots, the most significant of which has been the Ticket Sales Act. The legislation caps resale prices at no more than 50 per cent above the original price. Essentially, the act seeks to not only outlaw ticket bots but to remove the incentive to use them in the first place. It also forces sellers to disclose the maximum event capacity, the distribution method of the tickets, and surcharges up front. Violators of this law could face jail sentences of up to two years and fines as high as $250,000 for corporations or $50,000 for individuals, according to a spokesperson from the Ministry of the Attorney General.

The Ticket Sales Act was originally announced by Attorney General Yasir Naqvi in June 2017 in response to The Tragically Hip’s farewell hometown concert in Kingston selling out in minutes. Two thirds of the fans turned to online scalpers to get tickets, with fans paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a ticket originally priced at $50. It is estimated that resellers made between $25 million and $30 million in markups on the final tour of the iconic Canadian band.

The spokesperson from the Ministry of the Attorney General said that the proposed change seeks to give fans a “fair shot” at getting their preferred tickets and that the resale cap of 50 per cent, although meant to disincentivize resellers, doesn’t seek to “eliminate the resale market altogether.”

On the other hand, criticism has not been sparse regarding the legislation. In a recent CBC News article, Steve Tissenbaum, a mobile commerce professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management, expressed concern regarding the legislation’s inability to address scalpers who may be operating outside of Ontario and hiding their identities using proxy IP addresses. Progressive Conservative MPP Jim McDonell, a critic for Government and Consumer Services, called the act “a band-aid solution at best.”

Critics of the legislation also believe the cap on resale prices is problematic. “If you don’t provide a platform for people to sell for more, they’ll simply go to underground sites, because there will still be a demand… there’s never going to be enough tickets,” said Catherine Moore, an adjunct professor of Music Technology & Digital Media at U of T.

StubHub echoed Moore’s sentiments; in a recent Global News article, Laura Dooley, the company’s Senior Manager of Government Affairs, stated that the cap would “expose fans to higher instances of fraud” as fans go underground, where there is “non-existent customer service.”

Broadly, Canadians are unsure if the government should control ticket bots. A recent poll published by the Angus Reid Institute illustrated that, although eight in 10 Canadians supported making ticket bots illegal, they were split down the middle on whether changing the ticket marketplace should be the responsibility of the government or the industry.

If half of Canadians feel that the ticket bots should be handled by the industry, what have they done so far to reduce ticket bot attacks? It seems that there isn’t an industry standard: each seller has their own defence plan.

Eventbrite uses an “algorithmic approach” that consists of weeding out scalpers in three stages: before the purchase is finalized, within a few minutes of completion of purchase before the tickets sell out, and after all tickets are sold, conducting a “paper scrape” in the days that follow.

Ticketmaster, in contrast, uses a wider range of techniques to stop ticket bots. According to a spokesperson from the company, these techniques include IP blocking; behavioural identification, which is when nefarious users are blocked; paperless ticketing, which requires fans to present the credit card and photo ID to gain access to the event; and “over the limit” sweeps, cancelling orders of persons “who exceed ticket limits imposed by a venue or artist/event management.”

Scalpers have easily circumvented the latter two methods. In an interview with Vice, legendary scalper Ken Lowson stated that with multiple credit cards and multiple addresses — thus appearing to be several different people — a careful scalper can easily beat the over the limit sweeps. Paperless ticketing is also not an issue according to Lowson. Wiseguy, the scalping company run by Lowson before his arrest for wire fraud charges in 2010, would request its wholesalers to ask their clients for their credit card numbers, before entering the credit card numbers when paying, just like any other client.

But Ticketmaster is evolving. Most recently, the company launched the Verified Fan program, where ticket buyers are screened to confirm their authenticity as fans of the artist prior to getting first dibs on tickets. In the case of ticket sales for Taylor Swift’s most recent tour, which used a version of the Verified Fan program, fans were measured as authentic by their participation in ‘boosting’ activities such as buying her new album, watching videos, and sharing links on social media. Nonetheless, given the sophistication of many scalpers, fans who spend a considerable amount of time boosting Swift may not even get tickets.

In addition, there is also “dynamic pricing,” where ticket prices are not set but fluctuate according to demand. This was the approach used in ticket sales for the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, which was successful in reducing the price of tickets on reselling sites. However, doubt has been expressed as to whether this measure will translate into more tickets for the average fan. “[Ticketmaster] will simply BECOME the scalper, eliminating [the resellers] from the mix,” wrote Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor on the band’s messaging board.

Show me the tickets

If the most recent measures taken by the ticketing industry seem to favour sellers and artists and in some cases make it easy for resellers to circumvent them, then is the industry really looking out for the fans? Dean Budnick, co-author of Ticket Masters: The Rise of the Concert Industry and How the Public Got Scalped, in an interview with Vice, may have given the answer: “Ticketmaster’s job is to sell tickets,” said Budnick. “They want to sell as many tickets as they can, and if they want to sell to thousands of people who are going to resell them, they have a right to do that. That’s what the laws are.”

Last year, the New York Attorney General’s office released a “comprehensive” report on the ticketing industry. They determined that “the majority of tickets for the most popular concerts are not reserved for the general public.” With an average of 46 per cent of tickets on sale for the public, the rest of the tickets are acquired in presales, put on hold for promoters, or “sold directly to scalpers by the venues themselves.”

In between bots, legislation, and a reduced number of tickets available to the public, typical concert-goers like students looking to decompress after midterms or fulfill their long-held wishes to see their dream band in the flesh will have to shell out more money than ever to do that. This makes listening to your favorite music live a luxury.

U of T student given Most Valuable Professional award by Microsoft CEO

Sabrina Smai reflects on her tech journey and how AI can spark global change

U of T student given Most Valuable Professional award by Microsoft CEO

Inspired by a technology course she enroled in by accident, fourth-year U of T student Sabrina Smai decided to switch gears from the world of medicine to the world of technology. Smai is a philanthropist who is deeply concerned about making a positive impact on the world. She is a strong proponent of using artificial intelligence (AI) as a tool to drive change.

This year, given her involvement and dedication to the field of AI, Smai was recognized by Microsoft and was given the Most Valuable Professional award by the CEO of the company, Sataya Nedella.

According to Microsoft, the Most Valuable Professional award is given to experts in the field of technology who “bring together diverse platforms, products and solutions, to solve real world problems.”

Smai said that when she received the award in the mail and saw Nedella’s signature on it she “started freaking out.” Smai added that “there are over 10 million people in the tech community around the world and only 4000 people get the award for the MVP.” According to Smai, she is one of the younger nominees to receive the MVP award and believes it was one her most memorable achievements.

Given the significance of the award and her expertise in AI, it is perhaps surprising that Smai went into U of T with the intention of studying life sciences in hopes of one day becoming a doctor: “growing up I always wanted to impact the world in some sense. I just didn’t know how! And the obvious choice was to be a doctor because you would see [the] direct impact you have on the world by helping patients.”

Smai, left, has been working in the tech field since she came to U of T. Photo courtesy of John W.

What caused this switch? Smai said that as a doctor she would “impact one person at a time.” However, in technology she “could impact the world in [a] very, very fast way.” Smai continued saying, “I wanted to be a part of a movement, as opposed to smaller change.”

And so, a drive towards greater impact on a global scale, led Smai to pursue her career in AI. Throughout this career, Smai has participated in several hackathons particularly related to artificial intelligence. It was through these hackathons Smai was first introduced to Microsoft Student Partners. “It’s a program run by Microsoft to help students gain more knowledge in cutting edge technology and really [get] in touch with the tech community. So, I got really involved [with] that.”

While working with technology, Smai has contributed a start-up called E-Terview. E-Terview is an application that uses facial recognition to help people gain confidence in their interviews: “essentially, you record yourself answering interview prompts and through the recording and [the application] would pick up at what part you were feeling nervous and at what part were you not as confident as you were in other areas of your interview,” explained Smai. In helping students succeed and overcome potentially difficult obstacles, Smai said her work on this application was one of her highlights working with AI.

Through projects like E-Terview, Smai could transform and create many other cutting-edge AI tools. These projects were no easy task as they required Smai to work long hours and have a strong dedication to her work. Passion and grit are essential in a field that requires these long hours, and Smai says in a quest to find a job it is beneficial to focus on one’s upheld values and beliefs. Smai is a strong believer in philanthropy and ultimately knew that her “end, end goal” was to help others through technology.

Imagination to the masses: a Google Doodle narrative 

A student explores the educational and playful sides of our favourite home-screen welcome

Imagination to the masses: a Google Doodle narrative 

Hypertabs is The Varsity’s online features subsection about all things internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities.


Often, for those with Google Chrome set as their default browser, Google greets them in the morning and tucks them into bed at night. To complement such a maternal and nurturing image, Google even shares a diverse range of stories with its users; these include people, places, and special events — both current and historical. These stories, encapsulated in Google Doodles, strive to captivate, engage, and educate the user while simultaneously offering a brief vehicle of escapism from the everyday business of real life.

A medium of welcome

As the web browser loads, the user, with child-like excitement, awaits the debut and display of a Google Doodle. Will there be a Doodle today? If so, of what? Google Doodles provide prompt and sensational ‘Google-friendly’ welcomes. They serve as a multi-dimensional presentation of information, replete with aesthetic visuals, animation, audio, as well as a hyperlink to a webpage of relevant text.

At times, there’s even the opportunity to interact with the doodle. The “Pac-Man’s 30th Anniversary” doodle is a perfect example of this: when you click “Insert Coin,” a mimetic version of the game will begin to play. If any user itches to learn more, they can do so with simplicity and convenience by clicking the hyperlink and exploring the redirected webpage.

A medium of encouragement

As an intriguing side note, Google encourages its young users to take time for visual arts by way of an annual contest called Doodle 4 Google. The 2017 theme for the contest was, “What I see for Canada’s future is…” With monetary and technological prizes presented to the various winners, Google presents itself as a company that rewards the artistry and inventiveness of others, especially youth.

A medium of play

The user may open their browser to see a new doodle, or they may just see the standard Google logo. Because of this ever-changing and suspenseful experience, opening Google Chrome becomes a dynamic adventure of sorts.

Part of this play ties to the decoding of a doodle when it appears. Something surely appears to have changed, but the doodle is still recognizable to its audience. The user must look beyond the admirable audio-visual and experiential presentation to make out the Google logo, which appears in differing degrees of clarity in different doodles.

In the “Children’s Day 2016” doodle, the Google logo is fully and clearly visible. In other cases, the logo attempts to hide, as some of the letters become embedded into the doodle’s setting, visuals, or video: see the “Great American Eclipse 2017” doodle, or “Celebrating Victor Hugo.” The Google Doodle may even completely obscure the logo lettering, leaving the user to pick up on other clues.

In the “660th Anniversary of Charles Bridge” doodle, there are six distinct lights on the bridge in the evening slide of the animation; the word ‘Google’ has six letters. In addition, the colours of each light indicate, or signify, the iconic colours of Google.

Google Doodles invoke the idea of the fleeting imagination: the user observes, explores, and reflects upon the engaging visual; doodles open the mind to both knowledge and creativity; yet one Google Doodle moment will not last for long. The doodle arrives one day, a pleasant surprise, and typically disappears the next. Though users may be troubled, having enjoyed the previous doodle, they are also excited as they ponder the possibilities of the next one.

A Varsity doodle. ELHAM NUMAN/THE VARSITY

A medium of culture

When examining the Google Doodle Archive, I noticed that not all doodles are seen globally. If the user clicks a particular doodle, a map shows where in the world it will appear and which audience has been targeted. For example, only Canadian users have access to the “Canada National Day 2017” doodle.

When many countries celebrate a certain occasion or event on different days, Google tends to repeat the same visuals in each country; they use translatable and recognizable images that are typically comprehended universally. We can see this with the “Teachers’ Day 2017” doodle, which portrays a teacher, blackboard, and students.

The Google Doodle Archive serves as a not-so-secret home to past and present, local and international curated doodles, where users can explore rows upon rows of visually appealing creations. This idea of preserving past Google Doodles calls for reflection. Why preserve something typically considered low art or culture?

In this case, as with many other examples, Google strives to, it seems, blur the line between high culture and low culture. While some Doodles are quite simple and animated, others are intricately detailed masterpieces. See the stunning “Rembrandt van Rijn’s 407th Birthday” Doodle for an exceptional illustration of this. This Doodle, by Jennifer Hom, shows the great time, effort, and skill put into many of the creations.

A medium of learning

Although there are, in truth, a myriad of motivations and aims for Google Doodles, the most conspicuous would be historical and cultural learning. Namely, Google Doodles serve as a visual translation, interpretation, and simplification of chronology, connecting dates to momentous and consecutive events, people, inventions, and so on.

They make up an aesthetic timeline of the past, as integrated into the present through technological means. Users can follow along, day by day, to a sequence — mapped out by time — of history and culture.

What story, or Google Doodle, will Google share with us today, tomorrow, or next week? Click daily to find out — you might just learn something.

Crowdfunding and community

Students, artists, and the far-right are increasingly turning online to fund projects

Crowdfunding and community

Over the past few years, the market for crowdfunding websites has become saturated with a dizzying number of platforms jostling for attention — and donations. GoFundMe and Patreon allow supporters to fund creators, Kickstarter focuses on making creative projects come to life, and Experiment funds scientific research — there are even websites dedicated to crowdfunding for university tuition. All platforms advertise the exciting new possibilities they create.

Over $4 billion has been raised on GoFundMe through more than 40 million donors. Kickstarter positions itself as an important resource for advancing the arts in the context of consistent under-funding. In an email to The Varsity, Experiment Co-founder Cindy Wu wrote that crowdfunding is a good way to “democratize the research process” and fund ideas that may be too ‘out there’ for conservative funders.

While this diversity is exciting, it often overshadows the public need engrained in these platforms. After all, as GoFundMe spokesperson Rachel Hollis told The Varsity, “GoFundMe has become synonymous with helping and we’ll continue providing the best fundraising tools to make it easy for people to come together to support causes they care about. We are always listening to our community and finding ways to empower more people across the world to help others.” Accordingly, some of GoFundMe’s most popular types of campaigns are for medical and emergency expenses.

Canada’s universal health care system still leaves gaps in funding for prescription drugs. This often leaves those with cancer and other illnesses on the hook for potentially thousands of dollars each month in medical fees. Meanwhile, young Ontarians are facing increasingly unaffordable housing alongside a decline in full-time earnings. Even in the once-stable field of academia, corporatization has brought precarious work conditions that make research funding far from guaranteed. Arguably, expenses are overwhelming students and young adults more now than ever before — and websites are happy to step in with the promise of new possibilities.

Community building

There are many astonishing success stories of crowdfunding. For instance, in 2016, Torontonian Toni Morgan crowdfunded her tuition costs to attend Harvard for her master’s degree, garnering media attention for her ‘homeless to Harvard’ story.

Websites like Experiment also provide a platform to non-traditional projects in order to allow more communities to engage in their passions. “Experiment is often the first money in. Experiment strives to be the place where all science starts. Funding is just one obstacle that some scientists face, so we’ve built a product to address that,” Wu wrote. “In history we’ve seen that the best ideas are often the ones overlooked, the outliers. As the traditional funders trend towards funding things that are more and more predictable, there needs to be an institution that supports the high risk early stage ideas.”

Here at U of T, crowdfunding has been used by students to fund everything from athletic training to research for a biochar project.

Third-year student Adam Sheikh turned to crowdfunding when he had an idea for a project but knew it would be difficult to move forward without initial funding. Reflecting on why the project was not successfully funded, Sheikh wrote to The Varsity, “I just feel like its a lot easier to get backing when people contributing are directly benefitting from their contribution…  that’s not to say that people don’t act in a way that is not benefiting them… but it’s harder to raise money because the margins are higher and the platforms don’t generate as much attention.

Third-year student Julianne de Gara successfully used crowdfunding to pay for damages incurred at an event she organized at Trinity College. However, in an email to The Varsity, de Gara wrote, “I was surprised by how few people were willing to donate. Despite having over 300 people attend our event, the $300 was donated by about 15 people– one of whom donated over $75.”

For York University PhD student and anti-sexual violence activist Mandi Gray, crowdfunding provided an opportunity to raise money without hosting a fundraising event while still generating publicity for her project, a documentary called Slut or Nut: The Diary of a Rape Trial, about navigating the legal system following a sexual assault.

In an email to The Varsity, Gray expressed surprise at the fundraiser’s supporters, writing, “It wasn’t people who are wealthy. It was primarily people who have fixed incomes, are single parents, working precarious jobs, or are students. I really was hoping that more ‘allies’ would donate to support the cause but it was mostly people who had experienced sexual assault who donated.”

In many ways, crowdfunding campaigns can be opportunities for people to come together over issues they care about; often, issues that might not otherwise get attention. In the case of de Gara and Gray however, these services can have barriers in engaging larger communities with certain projects or expenses. Beyond this, these websites also have the potential to perpetuate the same dynamics present in more traditional sources of funding.

MIA CARNEVALE/THE VARSITY

Crowdfunding the far-right

Crowdfunding has been essential for conservative activism and Rebel Media has considered it a crucial way of staying free from left-wing attempts to target advertisers of conservative media. Dave Rubin, whose conservative show The Rubin Report has featured Southern and Milo Yiannopolous, has appeared on the front page of the Patreon website.

Jordan Peterson has supplemented his full-time professor salary at the University of Toronto by running a Patreon account through which he currently earns over $65,000 each month. Peterson is listed in the top 20 Education accounts on the website. Last academic year, Peterson’s videos fuelled rallies on campus, some of which saw violence and transphobic and racist remarks directed at protesters.

In July, Patreon removed the page of Lauren Southern, former Rebel Media contributor, for participating “in activities that are likely to cause loss of life” for her coverage of a far-right movement aiming to stop migration into Europe. Still, this hard stance against ultra-conservative activism seems rare among crowdfunding websites.

Administrative issues

On the flip side of crowdfunding successes are administrative issues that affect users. Gray wrote of “the administrative nightmare we had with indiegogo” after funds donated to their campaign had been mistakenly added to another account beginning in March 2017. The funds were not returned until summer. Gray added, “It was a really frustrating and trying process. We didn’t even think we were going to be able to make the film because we didn’t know if we would ever get the money from them.”

Similarly, Sheikh commented that the crowdfunding process feels “stacked against those who aren’t trying to sell products.”

Successful crowdfunding stories can often seem like fairy tales: a group has a serious problem, reaches out for help, and within an improbably short period of time they raise the money needed with the help of a community of kind strangers. Beyond feel-good stories, however, crowdfunding is also increasingly serving as a hub for different ideas and ideologies to spread and grow successfully. This can range from the funding of non-traditional science to the funding of conservative ideologies, which allows people like Peterson who already have full-time jobs to earn over $65,000 a month.

Identity in the age of the Buzzfeed quiz

On the internet’s obsession with labels, categories, and typologies

Identity in the age of the Buzzfeed quiz

Hypertabs is The Varsity’s online features subsection about all things internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities.


It’s rare to see a social media bio that does not contain some reference to a zodiac sign, a Myers-Briggs type, or a Hogwarts House. And it’s nearly impossible to go on Facebook without seeing a friend sharing an online quiz like “Which Disney Princess Are You?” or “What Age Are You, Really?”

From the popularity of self-report personality questionnaires like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), countless astrology websites, and Buzzfeed quizzes, it’s clear that in the digital age, we like to categorize ourselves.

Sometimes, these categories can transform an individual’s identity, their relationships, and their sense of place in the world — both online and offline.

Astrology: a history of categorization

Thousands of years before astrology websites and columns became popular, Mesopotamian, Indian, Egyptian, and Assyrian astrologers were developing the foundations of modern astrology. The creation of the 12 zodiac signs we have today is heavily credited to the ancient Greeks, who believed that our life trajectories could be predicted by the stars.

For the remainder of Western history, the popularity of astrology depended on the historical period and the prevailing powers of the time.

Despite being regarded as a pseudoscience by most of the scientific community, astrology remains more popular than ever. Astrology websites and resources are ubiquitous online, and daily or monthly horoscope sections are still included in many publications.

Joan Ann Evelyn, President of the Canadian Association for Astrological Education and member of Astrology Toronto, says that a benefit of understanding astrology is “becoming the person you were meant to be.”

Evelyn has identified with her astrological sign, Leo, since her teens. She initially turned to astrology because she “did not understand the path [her] life had taken” and “wanted some answers,” which she found via her astrological birth chart.

Like Evelyn, millions of people throughout history — from the ancient world to the digital age — have tried to understand their personality through their zodiac sign.

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

MBTI and online communities

During World War II, Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter Isabel Briggs Myers were determined to create a tool to help people better understand themselves and others. Inspired by the research of psychiatrist Carl Jung, they created the MBTI questionnaire, which divides people into four-letter personality types. The possible trait groups are introversion (I) or extroversion (E); sensing (S) or intuition (N); thinking (T) or feeling (F); and judging (J) or perceiving (P).

While some critics now deem the MBTI unscientific, it is still widely used across the world.

Joseph Simone, whose results on the Myers-Briggs test list him as an ENFP, is the creator of “Toronto Intuitives,” an online group created in 2015 that regularly plans real-life meetups for people sharing the ‘intuition’ trait. The group has just over 500 members.

Journalist Drake Baer has criticized the Myers-Briggs test by likening personality tests to horoscopes: both mediums identify people with non-offensive markers that can then become integral parts of their identities. If you only see yourself as an INTJ or an ESFP, Baer argues, you may limit yourself.

However, after learning more about how the mind of an ENFP supposedly works, Simone says he was able to “concretely improve [his] life.” He was inspired to start his Toronto Intuitives group and was better able to connect with family members who were once difficult to understand.

“Learning about what makes me different or the same from others around me has deeply impacted the way I talk to people, my ability to empathize with them, and my own identity,” says Simone.

“It has helped me understand the reasons behind miscommunications, relationship incompatibility, and how to curate my life to suit me best as an ENFP.”

What kind of avocado toast are you?

Online personality quizzes – although taken less seriously than astrology and the MBTI – showcase our sustained fascination with fitting ourselves into categories in the digital age. Even if those categories are, at times, as ridiculous as which Disney character you are.

One avid online quiz-taker is Shuyin Yu, a graduate of U of T.

“I remember finding online personality quizzes on websites like Blogthings back in junior high school, so I’ve been taking these quizzes for fun for a very long time,” writes Yu. “It wasn’t until Buzzfeed became really popular that I started taking personality quizzes regularly.”

Yu says she takes an average of a dozen Buzzfeed quizzes every day and shares the results on Facebook if she finds them interesting or knows certain friends would be interested in taking the quizzes.

On a smaller scale, Yu is building a community and encouraging interaction through her quiz results. Perhaps there is a sense of belonging in getting the same avocado toast result as someone, just as there is in sharing an MBTI trait. Even though Yu mainly takes online quizzes for fun, there still seems to be a fascination she has with categorizing herself and sharing this categorization with others.

“I think it’s a fun activity, and something people should be allowed to enjoy,” says Yu.

IRIS DENG/THE VARSITY

A sustained interest

For Evelyn, the purpose of astrology isn’t to limit yourself or fit into a box — it’s to learn more about yourself: “There is an innate need within people to learn who they truly are,” she writes in an email to The Varsity.

“I do not think people pursue Astrology because they want to fit into a particular category,” says Evelyn. “Many of them are on a quest to find out their purpose in life. I see my own goal as an Astrologer as helping my clients gain a better understanding of their own life.”

Simone echoes Evelyn’s sentiments but laments that some people may mistype themselves or use their Myers-Briggs type as a “shallow label for themselves” or wear their type “like a piece of cheap jewelry,” failing to fully understand the MBTI system.

“I think many people today want to find ways of understanding themselves and others,” says Simone. “But the purpose of these systems is not to create new boxes or labels, but to show you where you are and how you work.”

“Finding your ‘type’ won’t change who you are; it will give self-awareness.”

However, skeptics like journalist Jordan Shapiro have explained the popularity of online personality quizzes through Sigmund Freud’s concept of displacement, which suggests that the psyche unconsciously redirects an impulse from the potentially-dangerous and toward the superficial. In this case, Shapiro proposes the anxiety we feel about “algorithmic targeting” and online surveillance is displaced into parallels that are seemingly safer or more fun — like online personality quizzes, which also require a collection of information and subsequent algorithmic categorization.

With millions of Google searches for personality quizzes and zodiac signs, along with the ability to instantly communicate with others online, it is easier than ever to seek out labels and form communities around them. While some may brush off our sustained interest in categorizing ourselves as purely narcissistic or meaningless, that interest speaks to our deeper need to understand ourselves, relate to others, and find familiarity in an often chaotic world.

You got Bunz, hun?

A look inside the world of Toronto’s online trading community

You got Bunz, hun?

Hypertabs is The Varsity’s online features subsection about all things Internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities.


 

“Hey. Are you here for the Bunz trade?”

I remember saying this to the lady standing at the park gate, hoping I would get an affirmative response, thinking how stupid I would look if I didn’t. She smiled with a ‘yes’ and I proceeded to complete my first trade after making my Bunz account two years prior.

This, I soon learned, was a staple interaction in the world of Bunz. I traded a few tokens for some old 35mm rolls of film at the edge of Trinity Bellwoods Park, following the golden rule of Bunz: no money allowed.

When I first downloaded the Bunz app, I thought it was just another millennial fad to partake in — but a good one, given that I didn’t have the funds to purchase such items at full monetary value. Later, I became fortunate enough to learn about the larger implications of a secret trading economy and the impact it’s had on so many Torontonians.

Bunz, explained

Bunz is a web- and mobile-based platform where users can post a variety of their unwanted items for trade. Each profile allows the user to post items they are ‘In Search Of’ — commonly known as ‘ISO’ on the app — to inform other traders what they’re looking for. If you’re interested in an item, you send a private message the owner, and the trading conversation begins.

This platform initially began as a private Facebook group created by artist Emily Bitze, who originally named the group Bums Trading Zone. Bitze told me what her life was like around the time of the group’s initial creation, after she had moved to Toronto: “Though I was happy, I was still frustrated and broke. The cost of living was high and I could barely keep my head above water.”

“It made sense, environmentally and economically,” Bitze continued, discussing her need for the platform. Everyone she knew was struggling with money, and she saw perfectly good things being thrown away on a regular basis — a reality U of T students are not unfamiliar with.

Today, there are nearly 135,000 Bunz users, many of whom use the app for the same reason Bitze created it.

A world without money

Donna Liu, a U of T architecture undergrad and member of the original Facebook trading group, has a running list of all her trades. Among some of her highlights are hummus for a hand knitted scarf, two leftover beers for a pair of Aldo heels, and a $15 bottle of white wine for a couch.

“I think the most awarding was when I did art commissions,” Liu said. “I also got asked to do a sketch as a wedding present, pet portraits of deceased pets, [and] a poster of a loved bike.” The list goes on.

U of T Ethics, Society, and Law student Madelin Burt-D’Agnillo described a chain-trading incident to me: “one day I trade[d] a Slap Chop… then immediately traded with someone else for a Slap Chop.” Their story reminded me of a trade I once did for coffee beans, and how I traded those coffee beans for an old camera immediately after.

The resurgence of a bartering system is a symptom of the reality we are living in today, where students and working class people increasingly have more debt — and more stuff.

“Capitalism’s been ramping up for the last, whatever, probably 40 or 50 years, to the point where people have so much stuff,” said David Morton, Bunz’s Marketing Director.

[pullquote-default]This resurgence of a bartering system is a symptom of the reality we are living in today where students and working class people increasingly have more debt – and more stuff.[/pullquote-default]

Bitze says that the environmental implications are one thing she appreciates most about her work. “Knowing that we have diverted tonnes of potential items from our landfills,” is one of Bitze’s favourite experiences with Bunz.

Redesigning the brand

If you visited bunz.com last year, you would have been greeted with an image of an unimpressed blue troll asking for a password, as if it – the troll – was the only thing that would allow you to cross over into the Trading Zone. “The troll was somewhat accidental,” Bitze said, explaining that the meaning behind the troll “was in the classic sense, like a bridge troll.”

However, there were increasing concerns that the term was alienating; this was understandable given the association with what we now know as Internet trolling. The troll has now been replaced by something more friendly and inviting: “It’s a B, it’s two people together, it’s happy neighbours, and it’s cheeky,” said Bitze.

It’s two buns — or bunz, if you will.

A similar change was instituted over growing concerns surrounding the original Facebook name, Bums. After concerns were brought up that the name was insensitive, Bitze changed it to what we see today: Bunz Trading Zone.

The growth of the platform — now with 13 full-time employees — is largely due to an anonymous angel investor. However, the onset of making money from a platform which is premised on the exclusion of money is something that has generated tension for both the Bunz team and the Bunz community.

Bitze asserted that, for her team to continue the project for the community and expand further, they need the funding. And now they’re “working on something new that’s never been done before,” she told me. It’s a project to be launched by the end of this summer.

When discussing one of her favourite things about Bunz, Bitze mentioned that the support of the community has been “essential to how we’ve grown,” and how this will continue to guide future expansion.

Community

Bunz has provided an opportunity for users to experience the richness of Toronto’s people from an entirely new perspective. The platform has become an excuse to talk to random strangers you would otherwise pass by in the hustle and bustle of Yonge Street.

By taking the time to stop and talk, you can discover an obscure detail of their life, like how they’re willing to trade a contour kit for a collectible set of quarters — one of my best trades yet.

When asked what her favourite trade was, Burt-D’Agnillo replied that it was her “super old wooden desk/chair, because the person who traded with me threw in a bunch of pencils and supplies because she knows I’m a student.”

It’s these little moments of connection with and appreciation for strangers that really make Bunz such a fulfilling experience. And for some, the app holds significant meaning to their livelihood.

“So many days I want to stay in bed. Bunz trades [get] my butt out of bed and forces me to walk,” said Bunz user, kada. kada suffers from chronic pain due to an accident affecting her physical health requiring use of a cane to help her walk. She moved to Toronto to be closer to the St. Michael’s hospital and is now a regular user of the app.

Another Bunz user, bokin, reflected a similar sentiment: “I got to see a part of the city I may otherwise may have never visited.” bokin discussed one of her first trades, where both her and the other trader brought their dogs and she was introduced to the Trinity Bellwoods neighborhood. She said it was “Literally the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had with a complete stranger.”

For bokin, Bunz played a part in overcoming her crippling anxiety and depression “by giving me something to be responsible for and above all – confidence.”

Over time, Bunz became more than just an alternative to Kijiji or Craigslist. It became a platform via which Torontonians and others can interact over collective interests and struggles. The over-250 Bunz-branded Facebook groups around the world are a testament to this community-based sharing culture. U of T students are probably most familiar with the Bunz Pet Zone page for all things pet-related, the Bunz Home Zone for furniture and house supplies, and the Bunz Helping Zone page for really any and every question you have.

It was precisely this Bunz community that allowed user millie7354 to start a non-profit after-school program: “I put up a post asking for boardgame donations and got over 50 responses.”

millie7354 now has weekly after-school sessions thanks to the helping hands of Bunz users.

By talking to its users, I could see that Bunz is more than the resurgence of a bartering system; rather, it’s the resurgence of talking to your neighbours and building a grassroots community.