U of T engineering students aim to revolutionize transportation with hyperloop technology

Investigating a mode of transportation that could exceed the speed of commercial airliners

U of T engineering students aim to  revolutionize transportation with hyperloop technology

Since the early 1900s, the world has embraced the age of flight. Planes with guzzling engines leapfrogged across cities and oceans, consequently subduing slower modes of transportation such as ships and trains. However, just as the passenger ship once faced the threat of the commercial airliner, planes may soon face an emerging threat: the hyperloop.

In 2012, SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk with the goal of revolutionizing space technology, introduced the concept of the hyperloop. Described as a pod sealed within a tube which has no air resistance, the hyperloop could theoretically travel at speeds of up to 1,200 kilometres per hour. In comparison, the fastest train in the world can only travel up to 430 kilometres per hour.

Over the past several years, Musk has held annual competitions between various universities and engineering teams in the design of hyperloop technology in order to foster innovation.

The Varsity sat down with the University of Toronto Hyperloop Team (UTHT) to discuss hyperloop tech and the team’s role in its design. 

The origins of the UTHT

Inspired by a YouTube video of Elon Musk’s annual hyperloop competition, Juan Egas, a third-year undergraduate student studying materials science, wanted to join a hyperloop team.

However, he soon discovered that no such teams existed at U of T. Rather than staying content with watching teams at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Waterloo compete, he decided to co-found a team at U of T. 

With Egas as captain, the team launched operations during the winter semester of 2019. Its growth was as fast as an accelerating hyperloop pod. 

“By the end of the semester… we were about 10 [people]. At the end of the summer, we were 100… and now we’re [over] 200,” Egas remarked. The team also raised over $50,000 in funds in less than six months through corporate sponsorships and funding from U of T.

The team has divided itself into several main divisions, including technology, leadership, and business. Within the tech division, students designed test tracks for the pod, implemented critical software, produced braking systems, and engineered propulsion systems. Students also worked in the subsystems of structures to produce the shell and frame of the vehicle and power systems, which involves battery design.

In addition to designing the first pod, the team set up a research and development division to outmaneuver competitors by configuring technology such as Halbach arrays — arrangements of permanent magnets — into the design. The Lorentz force generated allows the pod to levitate, and as long the magnetic drag is surpassed, the pod can accelerate. 

Yet the team is not solely focused on competing with other universities; rather it also hopes to achieve more altruistic ideals. 

“We are not defined by competition,” Egas explained. “At the very beginning, it was about the competition, but then we started to realize that [the] hyperloop is more than [just] a cool technology [and is also aiming for future] sustainability.”

Jovan Phull, a founding member, said to The Varsity that hyperloop construction could bring better transportation options to North America, which lacks the high speed trains deployed in Europe and Asia.

Another founding member, Tony Wang, added that “it would be an honour to strive… to accomplish this evolutionary design.”

Taking on challenges in hyperloop construction

Aflush with growth, the team found itself facing many of the challenges that Musk currently faces. 

“The learning curve of the design is steep, requiring a lot of self-motivation in learning new things that the university does not teach you,” Wang commented. 

“Being a new team, we didn’t have previous years to look to. So we [looked] a lot to European teams and [to] teams around the world,” said Sasha Rudolf, who serves as the technology division director.

Similarly, developers of hyperloop tech often find themselves stymied by a lack of precedent. Another added difficulty is that the hyperloop pods must be able to withstand normal atmospheric pressure, as the hyperloop operates in a near-vacuum.

The future of UTHT

To test their pods, UTHT is developing a test track in collaboration with other universities. The team is fully cognizant of not only its own future prospects, but also that of the hyperloop. “[The hyperloop] could have a really big impact on [communities such as] Toronto and Montréal,” Rudolf remarked. However, he also acknowledged that “one of the big challenges is going to be getting the whole community, and especially the government, involved.”

Rather than leaving it solely up to Musk and other tech titans to get the job done, they hope to help foster some innovation within Canada.

The team has been planning a Canadian hyperloop team competition in conjunction with five other Canadian universities this summer. This would showcase various projects, new research, and of course, the contest itself.

Editor’s Note (January 19, 10:14 pm): The article has been updated to clarify that UTHT is developing a test track in collaboration with other Canadian universities, which is not currently operational.

Here’s where U of T experts stand on Sidewalk Toronto’s controversial smart city plan

Google’s sister company proposes redevelopment of Quayside, sparking concerns

Here’s where U of T experts stand on  Sidewalk Toronto’s controversial smart city plan

On October 31, tri-governmental organization Waterfront Toronto tentatively agreed to move forward with a reduced version of a controversial plan to redevelop part of Toronto’s Quayside into a technology-filled smart neighbourhood. 

The redevelopment proposal was put forward by Sidewalk Labs — a company owned by Alphabet that focuses on urban planning and innovation. Alphabet was formed in 2015 and is the parent company of Google and other Google-related ventures. Sidewalk Labs’ first significant redevelopment project, Sidewalk Toronto, has promised radical urban planning to improve city life. The flashy innovations range from timber skyscrapers, to robotic garbage collection, to new public transit infrastructure.

However, Sidewalk Labs has faced significant backlash over its evolving scope, governance structure, consultation processes, and data collection goals.

The Varsity spoke with several U of T experts to discuss the divisive proposal and how it may impact the university community.    

How Sidewalk Toronto got here

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Waterfront Toronto’s partnership with Sidewalk Labs in October 2017, alongside Toronto Mayor John Tory and then-Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

The original plan was to redevelop nearly 12 acres of land at Queens Quay East and Parliament Street. As the project developed over time, Sidewalk Labs argued for an increased scope, including the addition of a roughly 190-acre plot of land in the Port Lands as a new site for Google Canada’s headquarters. These changes were released last June in Sidewalk’s 1,500-page Master Innovation and Development Plan (MIDP).

When Waterfront Toronto agreed to proceed with the project on October 31, it did so with the condition that Sidewalk Labs considerably limit its MIDP.

Moving forward, Waterfront Toronto has agreed to continue holding consultations and negotiate plans until March 31, 2020, when the parties must formally approve the partnership. If approved at this phase, the proposal will still require additional approval from the City of Toronto.

U of T’s involvement with Sidewalk Toronto 

U of T has played a consultatory role on the Sidewalk Labs project to date. President Meric Gertler served on Waterfront Toronto’s Board of Directors from January 2017, until he was fired from this position on December 6, 2018, for unknown reasons. Former Ontario Minister of Infrastructure Monte McNaughton also fired Waterfront Toronto chairpersons Helen Burstyn and Michael Nobrega alongside Gertler.

The firings followed a report by Ontario Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk, which criticized the board’s oversight structure and raised concerns about Waterfront Toronto’s initial proposal request process that may have favoured Alphabet over other applicants.

Several U of T professors and faculty members have participated in Sidewalk Toronto consultation processes and committees. One of them is Andrew Clement, Professor Emeritus from the Faculty of Information, who currently sits on Waterfront Toronto’s Digital Strategy Advisory Panel. When asked about his role on the panel, Clement wrote to The Varsity that he offers advice “on whether the digital aspects of Sidewalk Labs’ proposals achieve high standards of protecting and promoting the public interest.” 

Additionally, four U of T students — Keisha St. Louis-McBurnie, Paul Seufert, Carol Yeung, and Sharly Chan — participated in a Sidewalk Toronto Fellowship program in the summer of 2018. They explored urban issues around the globe and provided insights into the Sidewalk Toronto project.

In their final report, the 12 fellows issued a series of recommendations for Sidewalk Toronto’s consideration, including setting affordable housing targets, promoting data literary, and using data collection to “build community trust.”

While it’s not officially part of Sidewalk Toronto’s redevelopment, U of T has partnered with MaRS Discovery District to lease 24,000 square feet inside the Waterfront Innovation Centre, a technology- and business-driven venture at the city’s waterfront.

In response to a question about whether U of T supports the Sidewalk redevelopment, a U of T spokesperson wrote to The Varsity that the “university supports Waterfront Toronto in its ambition to turn Quayside into a sustainable smart neighbourhood. Collaborating with global partners in such endeavours helps ensure the city, the province and the country build experience and influence as world leaders.”

Other postsecondary institutions have officially partnered with Sidewalk Labs. On November 28, George Brown College announced its signature of a letter of intent to work with Sidewalk Labs on community programming initiatives.

Thoughts on the proposal

Mariana Valverde — a professor of criminology and sociolegal studies and member of #BlockSidewalk, an organization opposing Sidewalk Toronto — criticized Waterfront Toronto’s initial request-for-proposal (RFP) project.

Waterfront Toronto “issued a highly ambiguous document (RFP) that then allowed a Google company to propose a very vague but extremely ambitious plan that would require overturning any number of local laws and rules and would completely marginalize city departments and city democratic processes,” Valverde wrote to The Varsity.

Clement believes Sidewalk Toronto offers a unique opportunity to consider policy responses to smart city proposals. However, he cautioned against approving the project as it stands, noting that there has not been enough information or time to adequately debate Sidewalk Labs’ sweeping plans.

Shauna Brail, Associate Professor, Urban Studies Program and Associate Director, Partnerships & Outreach at the School of Cities, wrote to The Varsity that the proposal will most likely shift as it moves forward. “We’ve seen over the past 18 months that the plan is subject to change and will most certainly continue to change if it makes its way through the approval process.”

Ongoing criticisms of Sidewalk Toronto are its data collection processes and subsequent privacy implications. Clement reflected these concerns around privacy, noting the consequences of “a multitude of sensors capable of fine grained surveillance of individual behaviour.”

Alongside questions about data collection, Brail also highlighted concerns regarding the financial model and accessibility of the project, given that “the property is predominantly publicly owned, thus resulting in heightened public expectations.”

Valverde echoed these privacy concerns, while adding that there are issues with the urban development process of Sidewalk Toronto. “There are basic issues of democratic control over urban development, or rather the lack of it. Waterfront Toronto is not a democratic organization. It has no mechanism to be accountable to citizens,” she wrote.

Brail noted that some U of T researchers, faculty, and students are already benefiting from the Sidewalk Labs project through various consultation and scholarship opportunities. “If the proposal moves forward, there are likely to be additional opportunities, for instance in prototyping, experiential learning, and continued research and evaluation,” she wrote.

Civil and Mineral Engineering Assistant Professor Shoshanna Saxe — who has also written about the Sidewalk Labs project in The New York Times — wrote to The Varsity that the university can broadly benefit from studying Toronto as a “living lab.”

While acknowledging that Sidewalk Toronto could theoretically provide employment opportunities for researchers, Valverde put forward that “there has been little emphasis on hiring locally or using local tech companies, and we know that Google does buy tech inventions from all over, including Toronto, but the profits all go to the US, as does the intellectual property.”

Meanwhile, Rotman School of Management Professor and School of Cities Scholar in Residence Richard Florida is a vocal proponent of the Sidewalk Labs project. In an opinion piece for The Globe and Mail, Florida argued that Sidewalk Toronto demonstrates Canada’s potential in the high-tech development sector.

Disclaimer: Kaitlyn Simpson previously served as Volume 138 Features Editor and Volume 139 Managing Online Editor of The Varsity, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc.

Indigenous-led U of T lab releases app for reporting toxic pollutants in ‘Chemical Valley’

App could help community members of Aamjiwnaag First Nation

Indigenous-led U of T lab releases app for reporting toxic pollutants in ‘Chemical Valley’

A maze of petrochemical plants is squeezed into a 100-block space in the southern outskirts of Sarnia, Ontario. Marked by a distinct smell of rotting eggs, gasoline, and melting asphalt, this area, dubbed the ‘Chemical Valley,’ houses more than 60 refineries that produce plastics, gasoline, synthetic rubber, and other products.

The industrial area — which constitutes 40 per cent of Canada’s petrochemical industry — was built around the reserve on which Aamjiwnaang First Nation members reside. Today, around 850 people live on the reserve, which was created after their traditional territory was ceded to European settlers over many decades. According to a 2011 report by the World Health Organization, the air surrounding the reservation has been the most polluted in the country.

As long as the land remains enclosed by Chemical Valley, there are no means by which the Indigenous communities living on that land can find reprieve from the constant toxicity that surrounds them.

University of Toronto lab offers a potential solution

The Technoscience Research Team (TRU), has taken a meaningful step toward a solution. Researchers at this Indigenous-led lab at U of T launched a Pollution Reporter app, which allows members of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation to report the pollutants in and around their land, and how they are affected by them.

The TRU is a cross-faculty research unit located at the Faculty of Information and jointly supported by the Faculty of Arts & Science, following its establishment at the Women and Gender Studies Institute. It draws together social justice approaches to science, and technology studies from across the university.

“Traditionally, Indigenous communities are seen as objects of research, but our lab is dedicated to flipping the tables on that,” said Dr. Michele Murphy, the TRU’s director and a professor at the Women and Gender Studies Institute, in an interview with The Varsity.

“We are a group of Indigenous researchers studying how colonialism works when it comes to oil refineries, environmental regulation, and so on. That’s our work,” she explained.

TRU’s research focuses on the Imperial Oil Refinery in Chemical Valley, which is the largest and oldest polluter in the area. Other refineries in the area also produce high quantities of pollutants, with up to 50–60 times the amount of harmful pollutants such as sulfur dioxide or benzene, compared to similar refineries across the valley’s river in the United States.

How the app works

The TRU’s Pollution Reporter App offers an accessible way for community members and the public to make reports about pollution. These reports can alert the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks of pollution incidents, spills, leaks, and flares.

According to Vanessa Gray, one of the developers of the app, the current system in place to report the impact of a spill or pollutant is by calling the Spills Action Centre, which is located in Toronto. Callers would be asked about what they were doing during the incident, the direction of the wind during the incident, and other questions that are often difficult to answer.

Gray mentioned that the app allows users to fill those categories out themselves, along with other categories, such as where they might be feeling the effects of those chemicals by looking at different icons. Chemicals from Imperial Oil Refinery are also searchable, which enables community members to get answers much quicker.

App also provides health information regarding pollutants

The app also enables users to search for information about the area, according to the related symptoms, health hazards, or chemicals present. Users can access pollution emissions data with research about known health hazards.

The app works by linking publicly-available data on refinery emissions from the federal government’s National Pollutant Release Inventory to known health hazards, based on peer-reviewed medical literature.

A main advantage of the app is that it translates chemical jargon for community members to understand, which could help raise awareness about the failing health of their land, waters, and community.

Rsearchers at the TRU hope that the Pollution Reporter App can amplify the ability of the Aamjiwnaang First Nation’s voice to be heard.

Disclosure: Aanya Bahl is the Mental Wellness Commissioner on the University College Literary and Athletic Society.

Honeybee app: a hub to find research study participants in Toronto

Company co-founded by recent U of T alumni, helps students earn cash for participation

Honeybee app: a hub to find research study participants in Toronto

Honeybee, an online platform whose app will soon be released to the public, aims to create a central hub that will attract and incentivize people to participate in research studies in Toronto.

Just six months after the startup’s initial launch, co-founders and U of T alumni Catherine Chan and Weiwei Li have extensively expanded upon the company. They plan to launch the official app on November 7.   

The concept behind Honeybee

While pursuing her Master of Science at U of T’s Department of Nutrition, Chan continuously struggled to recruit participants for her research study. “I [had] exhausted all social media channels trying to recruit people… and I only got half of the people that I needed,” Chan explained in an interview with The Varsity.

She elaborated further, explaining that the delay had compromised her research data and said it was a massive waste of resources, because she had spent more time trying to recruit participants than actually performing the study.

Unfortunately, Chan’s circumstances are not unique. She noted that clinical trials are often terminated around the globe due to insufficient participant recruitment.

Chan immediately saw an urgency for a solution to this problem. That’s when Chan had the idea of Honeybee, an online platform where researchers could post their studies in search of participants, and participants could easily search for studies that they were eligible for.

During the end of her graduate degree, Chan took a week off from writing her thesis to pitch her idea to the Impact Centre’s Techno entrepreneurship program, where she was ultimately rewarded a microfinancing grant. Chan then went on to receive multiple other business grants targeted toward young entrepreneurs.

Li joined Chan as a full-time co-founder, shortly after graduating with his Master of Applied Science from U of T’s Department of Materials Science & Engineering.

How does Honeybee work?

Many of the current ways to discover research studies are through government-affiliated or institution-specific websites. In an interview with The Varsity, Li said that these websites can sometimes be “intimidating,” and often lack a friendly user interface.

A lack of awareness of the resources is another issue. According to its co-founders, Honeybee aims to combat this by building a community feeling and a centralized space for research studies across various disciplines.

Specifically, Honeybee wants to make sure that participating in research studies is easy and accessible. The company aims to take extensive measures to ensure informed consent in order to make participants feel that the researchers are being transparent.

“Sometimes people feel [like] a guinea pig of research, but [that’s] really not the case,” Chan explained. “We are working with a research ethics board coordinator [from Unity Health Toronto], who is our company advisor.”

A useful feature of Honeybee is its anonymous request process. Participants can join the service without disclosing their name or email, and access anonymous chats where they can freely speak to researchers without exposing their identities.

The future for Honeybee

The Honeybee app launches next month, and, according to its co-founders, is the first of its kind to market in Canada. Currently, Honeybee lists over 20 research studies, and has connected them to more than 100 participants, according to Li.

Chan explained that they “really want to grow in the city that [they’ve] built the product in.” As such, Honeybee will be focusing on expanding in the Toronto research community before anywhere else.

In the near future, Honeybee plans to include the implementation of artificial intelligence and natural language processing in order to optimize search options, according to Chan.

Another one of the co-founders’ goals is to support U of T students. As such, they’re beginning to bring on various students, including one from U of T’s Impact Centre Entrepreneurship course IMC392, who will earn course credit while accumulating work experience, according to Chan.

How can students earn money and gift cards with Honeybee?

Honeybee represents a great opportunity to earn extra cash, Starbucks gift cards, and even rewards such as free fitness trackers — all while meaningfully contributing to U of T and engaging in the research community, according to Chan and Li.

The search function is designed to be user-friendly and free for participants. To promote student engagement, Honeybee further plans to have their mascot active around St. George campus, and also engage with students on Twitter and Instagram.

Creative Destruction Lab partners with Facebook on new cryptocurrency

Rotman incubator is sole academic partner in controversial Libra venture

Creative Destruction Lab partners with Facebook on new cryptocurrency

In June, the Rotman School of Management’s seed-stage incubator announced a partnership with Facebook’s new venture into cryptocurrency: Libra. As the company’s only academic founding partner, U of T’s Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) will participate as part of the Libra Association in its efforts to create a cryptocurrency infrastructure.

While CDL touts the partnership as an exciting opportunity for innovation, recent criticisms leveraged against the tech giant have some wondering if Libra is contributing to Facebook’s woes.

Facebook’s crypto experiment

On June 18, amid a tense period for the company, Facebook released a statement announcing Calibra, a new subsidiary of Facebook that aims to connect people to financial services through the Libra network.

Calibra intends to create a digital wallet system where people can buy, spend, and save Libra cryptocurrency. Users will be able to use Libra’s wallet on Facebook-owned services like WhatsApp, Messenger, and as a standalone app.

The Libra network will use a blockchain system that will record every transaction that takes place. As a “permissioned” network, Libra’s blockchain can only function on specific servers. 

Libra’s network will be overseen by the Libra Association, which is composed of companies, non-profit organizations, and academic institutions. The association intends to manage the network, provide servers to run the network, and manage the cryptocurrency’s reserve. The association also removes Libra’s control from the hands of Facebook into those of industry, academia, and non-profit sectors.

When it was announced, the Libra Association had 27 members, including Spotify, Lyft, and Uber. Facebook hopes to have at least 100 partners in the association by Libra’s expected 2020 launch.

CDL joins The Libra Association

While the CDL was established at the University of Toronto in 2012, the lab now operates with locations across the country and in the United Kingdom. As a seed-stage program, CDL supports startups in the science and technology field.

CDL’s partnership with Libra is intended to build on the lab’s incubation role by providing additional opportunities for the startup community. According to Rotman School of Management Professor and CDL’s Chief Economist, Joshua Gans, the partnership intends to provide more opportunities for CDL startups in the blockchain stream. In the long-term, Gans said Libra presents an opportunity for the entire startup community. “In creating better startup ecosystems, we will be fulfilling our mission,” he said.

In an email to The Varsity, Gans discussed how the partnership will benefit the U of T community, saying, “for the university, it represents a bold and innovative move — with a set of challenges that is not normally in the university’s wheelhouse but is something that its leadership can build on and signal a vision that goes beyond the ordinary day-to-day of academic life.”

“I think it is particularly gratifying that the university, at its highest levels, has been able to back our role in Libra thus far and I hope that will continue as things evolve,” Gans added.

In an interview with The Varsity, Associate Professor of Finance at the Rotman School of Management and at UTM’s Department of Management, Andreas Park, said academic institutions should have a role to play in regulating Libra.

“I think it’s really important that an academic institution is part of [the governance process],” Park said, adding that academic partners could have a “positive influence” when outlining Libra’s objectives, goals, and governance structure.

Libra’s promise and pitfalls 

When announcing the project, Facebook evoked current concerns around financial systems as justification for the product. Specifically, the company noted that financial infrastructures are inaccessible in developing countries — especially for women.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg reflected on this promise in leaked memos, saying he hopes that Libra will create a system of “digital money that can work globally” and can effectively “be implemented by big companies.”

For Park, a global cryptocurrency system has significant potential, especially for countries without a stable currency. An effective cryptocurrency system could have a sweeping positive impact by creating a financial structure that “transcends borders.”

“Most people in the world would benefit greatly if they had stable money,” Park said. “And if you think of Facebook as two billion users, most of them are not from the developed world. So, the developing world can benefit enormously [by] this initiative almost by accident.”

“I could not envision a world in which the public sector would actually be able to build this,” Park added.

However, while Facebook maintains that Libra will protect users’ private information – apart from sharing data to “keep people safe” and “comply with the law” – some researchers, lawmakers, and advocates have raised concerns with Facebook’s track record on privacy.

Amid these mounting concerns, Libra has come under sharp scrutiny. For some companies, the costs of participating in Libra outweighed the benefits. Earlier this month, reports surfaced that seven major partners had left the association: Paypal, Visa, Mastercard, eBay, Stripe, Mercado Pago, and Booking.

Megan Boler, Associate Chair of the Department of Social Justice Education in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, raised concerns about Facebook’s size and power in an email to The Varsity. “Nothing could be more disturbingly symbolic of Facebook’s meteoric rise to ruling the globe than Libra,” Boler said in an email to The Varsity. “Given Facebook’s track record with profit over public good, one must cultivate deep suspicion about this corporation’s ongoing amalgamation of economic, political, legal and increasingly moral power.”

Park also discussed possible concerns with Facebook’s ownership of a global financial system. Unlike banks, which have limited personal data about customers, Facebook has a plethora of information on every user.

“If you have the complete picture, you’re extremely powerful,” Park explained.

Disclaimer: Kaitlyn Simpson previously served as Volume 138 Features Editor and Volume 139 Managing Online Editor of The Varsity, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc.

Examining disinformation ahead of Canada’s federal election

U of T researchers observe potential election interference efforts on Twitter

Examining disinformation ahead  of Canada’s federal election

Earlier this summer, reports surfaced that possible automated pro-Trump Twitter accounts from the United States were using hashtags to interfere in Canada’s upcoming federal election.

These alleged bots — broadly defined as non-human actors created to mimic human behaviour online — can contribute to an already-existing problem of disinformation and ‘fake news.’

While Twitter has denied any large-scale disinformation campaigns, others have suggested that manipulation attempts are simply a reality of today’s social media landscape.

Amid the proliferation of false information online, how could one spot bots in their feed?


Perhaps the most infamous case of social media election interference is the Russian online disinformation campaign. According to the Mueller report, it is alleged to have contributed to the election of Donald Trump. However, as campaigning heats up for Canada’s federal election on October 21, U of T researchers have been looking into how automated social media accounts could be generating and spreading digital disinformation at home.

Dr. Alexei Abrahams, a research fellow at The Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, has assisted researcher Dr. Marc Owen Jones in exploring the contentious issue. By examining 34,000 tweets posted between September 3 and 5 of this year, Jones found that 15 per cent of the approximately 4,896 accounts using #TrudeauMustGo were linked to American far-right-wing politics. According to Jones, the behaviour of these accounts was consistent with that of political bots or orchestrated ‘trolls.’

In July, the National Observer reported on similar bot interference after #TrudeauMustGo became a trending topic on Canadian Twitter. In this instance, 31,600 tweets posted between July 16–17 were analyzed, with some accounts displaying “indicators of inauthentic activity.”

In an email to The Varsity, Abrahams confirmed that he and Jones were collecting data, but maintained that the “Canadian elections are not a major target for inauthentic, coordinated behavior.”

Abrahams discussed the potential consequences of disinformation online in a recent interview with CTV News. “You reach a place, when you’re exposed to so much misinformation, that you’re agnostic toward any sort of information,” he said.

“It ultimately leads to a sort of withdrawal from political life and from the activity of inquiring, because you just become frustrated and skeptical, then ultimately disenchanted.”

Automated disinformation

While much of the conversation around automated social media accounts and their contribution to new concerns surrounding ‘fake news’ involves the United States and the United Kingdom, there have been multiple documented cases of attempted election interference in Canada.

In 2017, university professors Fenwick McKelvey and Elizabeth Dubois released a study on the role of bots in the Canadian media landscape. The study found that Canada has not critically engaged with the role of bots in its democratic processes.

Citing the 2015 federal election campaign, McKelvey and Dubois illustrated how frequent automated tweets using the #cdnpoli hashtag amplified anti-Stephen Harper sentiment.

However, the researchers also highlighted the potential of bots for positive political engagement, including automated accounts created to increase government transparency.

More recently, Global Affairs Canada shared a report by Rapid Response Mechanism — a G7 response coordination group — outlining how “coordinated inauthentic [online] behaviour” was present during Alberta’s 2019 provincial election. While the report notes that the ‘inauthentic behaviour’ did not seriously interfere in the election, the existence of the coordinated disinformation has some questioning the power of bots in democratic processes.

Other reports have suggested that bot activity had amplified the tweets of now-Premier of Ontario, Doug Ford, during his provincial election campaign last year.

How to spot and prevent disinformation

Dr. Brett Caraway, an assistant professor at U of T’s Institute of Communication, Culture, Information & Technology, discussed the pressing concerns of false reporting in democratic institutions in an interview with The Varsity.

“When you have bots or fake news outlets, any sort of party that is interested in influencing a political outcome in an election, it creates some very real level of confusion over facts,” he said. “And that’s the part that I think is so dangerous to a healthy thriving democracy.”

When asked how users could protect themselves from being exposed to or perpetuating disinformation, Caraway outlined several measures. Users should question anonymous sources, examine URLs for proper sourcing, identify the dates on articles, read beyond headlines, check multiple sources, and put in effort when reading and sharing content.

Broadly, however, he believes that the government should take more measures to promote media literacy because it is “just as important as learning to read and write at this stage.”

According to Caraway, media literacy education should focus on three components: how to find authoritative information, how to value different kinds of information, and how to meaningfully participate in political discourse online.

“All of us are in the position of being broadcasters today,” he said. “And being in that position of a broadcaster comes with responsibility and obligation to engage in ethical political discourse.”

Disclosure: Kaitlyn Simpson previously served as Volume 139 Managing Online Editor of The Varsity, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc. 

Spyware company introduces unprecedented human rights policy

U of T’s Citizen Lab researcher likens NSO Group’s reforms to “tokenism”

Spyware company introduces unprecedented human rights policy

Controversial Israel-based spyware company, NSO Group, has introduced a new human rights policy to complement its business practices — an unparalleled measure for the global spyware industry.

While NSO Group says the policy “embeds relevant human rights protections throughout [its] business and governance systems,” critics, including Amnesty International and U of T’s The Citizen Lab at the Munk School, have argued otherwise.

NSO Group’s track record

NSO Group is a cyber-intelligence company that sells technologies for monitoring communications of various targets. Earlier this year, it was partially acquired by Novalpina Capital LLP, a private equity fund based out of the United Kingdom.

According to its website, NSO maintains that it sells its technology to governments because “terrorists, drug traffickers, pedophiles, and other criminals have access to advanced technology and are harder to monitor, track, and capture than ever before.”

However, the company has also faced backlash for its practices. Research conducted at U of T’s Citizen Lab — an interdisciplinary research organization exploring digital surveillance, censorship, and cyberattacks — has discovered that NSO Group’s spyware, Pegasus, was used to target activists, journalists, and members of civil society in countries such as Mexico, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Most recently, in May, reports surfaced that NSO software was used to allegedly spy on a lawyer through a vulnerability in WhatsApp. The lawyer — who remains anonymous due to fears for their safety — was involved in a civil lawsuit against NSO.

In June, David Kaye, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, called for a freeze on selling and using spyware until “human rights-compliant regulatory frameworks are in place.”

In his announcement, Kaye said, “The private surveillance industry is a free-for-all.”

Following Kaye’s call, researchers at Citizen Lab released a statement about the harmful consequences of the commercial spyware industry.

“In light of the concerns raised by the Special Rapporteur reports, companies like Novalpina Capital LLP… must take responsibility for the harms caused by the surveillance technology manufactured and sold by NSO Group,” wrote the researchers.

“Such a step would mean respecting international human rights treaties and, as a starting point, complying with the moratorium demanded by the Special Rapporteurs.”

A new policy

NSO Group’s new policy, announced on September 10, is intended to align the company’s practices with the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. The aim is to help the company identify possible risks for human rights abuses and work to prevent misuse of its products.

When the company announced the new policy, co-founder and CEO of NSO Group Shalev Hulio said that the policy “publicly affirms our unequivocal respect for human rights and our commitment to mitigate the risk of misuse.”

“With this new Human Rights Policy and governance framework, we are proud to further enhance our compliance system to such a degree that we will become the first company in the cyber industry to be aligned with the Guiding Principles,” he added.

Alongside the human rights policy, NSO also announced a new External Whistleblower Policy and three new senior advisors.

The advisors — United States Governor Tom Ridge, former French Ambassador to the United States Gèrard Araud, and former Assistant Secretary at the United States’ Department of Homeland Security Juliette Kayyem — are set to support the company in its partnerships with governments.

The response

In the wake of the policy announcement, advocates and researchers have grappled with the question: can spyware and human rights work in tandem?

In an email to The Varsity, Citizen Lab Senior Legal Advisor Siena Anstis wrote that the policy “does not inspire confidence.”

“It’s easy to put words to paper, but we still have no real information on how the company will be transparent regarding its business practices or what types of oversight and accountability structures are in place to ensure real implementation of the ‘human rights policy,’” Anstis wrote.

“Without transparency or accountability, the policy is meaningless.”

When asked if NSO’s human rights policy would spark similar policies in the industry, Anstis wrote that “it’s hard to predict whether other companies in this industry are going to follow suit.”

However, she noted that “it certainly wouldn’t be challenging for other spyware companies to engage in the same level of tokenism.”

In a public proclamation, Deputy Director of Amnesty Technology Danna Ingleton also criticized NSO Group in response to the policy.

“The company needs to demonstrate [that this reformed policy] is more than an attempt to whitewash its tarnished reputation,” she said. “It doesn’t get to pick and choose when it should respect human rights — all companies have this responsibility anyway.”

Ingleton called for more government regulation for the spyware industry.

“Governments also need to act,” she said. “There needs to be tougher legal requirements on respecting human rights for the spyware industry, which time and time again has trampled on the rights to privacy, freedom of opinion and expression.”

Anstis further advocated for tightened regulation in the spyware industry.

“In addition to pushing for reform,” she said, “the public should be calling for more transparency on when and how their governments deploy this technology and the safeguards in place to ensure it is not abused.”

Disclosure: Kaitlyn Simpson previously served as Volume 139 Managing Online Editor of The Varsity, and currently serves on the Board of Directors of Varsity Publications Inc.

The Entrepreneurship Hatchery hosts Demo Day 2019

Magnetic aircraft-braking system takes home $20,000 grand prize

The Entrepreneurship Hatchery hosts Demo Day 2019

On September 4, the Entrepreneurship Hatchery’s NEST program hosted its ninth annual Demo Day for student-led startups. The event, hosted by the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, took place at the Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship. The 14 finalists from the program pitched innovations, ranging from addressing energy poverty in developing nations, to pre-emptive brain disorder diagnosis, and more.

A panel of professors, industry leaders, philanthropists, and Hatchery alumni awarded $42,500 in seed funding; $20,000 went to the first-place team, $10,000 to each of the two runners-up, and a $2,500 Orozco Prize to one crowd-favorite presentation.

The contactless airplane-braking company Aeroflux was awarded first place for its working demonstration of its patent-pending magnetic-field brakes. The team, composed of Nikola Kostic, Stevan Kostic, and Roshan Varghese, demonstrated its device, which minimizes the wear and tear on braking gear and could save airplane operators up to $7.2 million during a plane’s lifetime.

The team won the Clarke Prize for leadership in engineering design in May of this year. It plans to continue developing the technology within the U of T startup community.

Sparrow, an e-sports analytics tool, and eXamify, an end-to-end assignment marking solution, each won $10,000 Hatchery Prizes as runners-up. The team behind Sparrow developed an artificial intelligence agent which was fed by tracking in-game movement and post-game statistics. Sparrow delivers player-specific coaching suggestions in League of Legends, an online multiplayer game, with plans to expand into other competitive titles in the coming year, and eXamify is an all-in-one online test management suite that simplifies test grading for TAs and professors.

Crowd-favorite startup Brainloop was awarded the Orozco Prize for its predictive brain diagnosis platform. Up to 20 per cent of brain disorders are misdiagnosed, and Esteban Arellano and Juan Egas aim to use artificial intelligence to analyze test results to improve upon this rate. The duo hope that hospitals will adopt the tool to support diagnoses as early as April 2020.

Throughout the course of the four-month NEST program, the cohort developed products spanning a variety of markets. Other teams shone as well: Team Connct focused its efforts on predictive content suggestions and auto-replies for Instagram influencers, while Team OpenRace developed a platform for runners to compete in real time, from around the world.

As an early-stage startup incubator, the NEST program helps new founders understand the markets they’re trying to enter.

“In 10 or 15 years, we’ll be able to point at successful startups and serial entrepreneurs and say that they had a formative and enabling experience here. In that sense it’s quasi-educational,” said Professor Jonathan Rose, Chair of the Hatchery Advisory Board.

“The key for engineers is to pay attention to the business. Engineers have lots of great ideas, but they need to know if there’s a market for it.”

Disclosure: Nikhi Bhambra was The Varsity’s 2018–2019 Front End Web Developer.