The Roundup for June 1-30, 2020 Edition

(Urban King by Christopher Parsons)

Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.


I put together, and self-published, another photobook that is entitled “Pandemic Chronicles: Book I”. Each week that my city has been in (functional) lockdown, I’ve gone out once or twice and made images while just stretching my legs outside.

Over the past four months it’s often been hard to figure out how, exactly, I’ve been processing the life changes that have been imposed as a result of the pandemic. My life has, in many respects, reverted to that of my life during my PhD. So, lots of time inside and rarely leaving leaving my home, and having considerably less social contact than normal.

I think that it’s through my photos that I can best appreciate how I’ve felt, in retrospect, and understand how those images reflect how I see the world. The book that I made isn’t particularly dark: it’s just…lonely. It showcases the city that I live in, without the people that make it the city that I love. It shows people living their lives, often alone or separate from others, or while engaging in ‘safe’ behaviours. And, towards the end, it shows the light returning to Toronto, though in a format that differs from prior summers.

Photography has, and remains, a way for me to engage a creative part of my brain that otherwise would lie fallow. And, also, it’s operated as a meditative process that uncovers how I have been in the world, and how the world has been presented to me. As someone who has struggled with the idea of a ‘narrative’ in image making, I think that this book is a breakthrough because it ‘says’ something in aggregate that is more than just a presentation of visually pleasant images: it speaks to where I live, and how it has endured in the wake of the city’s closure. Is it the height of art? No. But it’s the closest I’ve come in this medium so far!


Inspiring Quotation

“Good” can be a stifling word, a word that makes you hesitate and stare at a blank page and second-guess yourself and throw stuff in the trash. What’s important is to get your hands moving and let the images come. Whether it’s good or bad is beside the point. Just make something.

Austin Kleon

Great Photography Shots

(Photos included in ‘Pandemic Chronicles: Book I’ by Christopher Parsons)

Music I’m Digging

This month has been packed with a lot of listening, with some alternative and R&B pretty tightly mixed in with hip hop. The best of what I listened to in June includes tracks from Yung Tory’s Rastar (including Mizu, Water Pt 2, and Netflix & Chill), Kali Uchis’s TO FEEL ALIVE (EP), HONNE’s no song without you (Single), and 6LACK’s 6pc Hot(EP).

Neat Podcast Episodes

I’ve been listening to a pair of new podcast shows over the past month that I’d recommend. From the CBC, there’s This Is Not A Drake Podcast, which uses Drake as a way to talk more about the history of rap and hip hop. So far I’ve really appreciated the episode on mixtapes, as well as the connotations of Nice Guy rappers.

Very differently, I’ve also been listening to the Globe and Mail’s series, Stress Test, which is about money issues facing millennials in the time of Covid. The episodes haven’t been staggering brilliant (a lot of the advice is pretty time tested) but the caution and suggestions are all helpful reminders.

Good Reads

  • Reflections from an “Accidental” Mentor // Prof. McNamara’s discussion of what it means to be a mentor— first and foremost modelling who we are, as individuals, rather than fitting within a particular narrow category of who we are normatively expected to be—is good advice, and important if we are to expand what is ‘normal’ within academia. She also focuses on celebrating the commonality across scholars; we’re all nerds, at heart, and so should focus on those attributes to create community. I agree, but for myself it’s more than that: it’s also about ensuring that the structures of professional environments are re-articulated to enable more junior persons to experience their jobs and professions in ways that weren’t possible, previously. It’s not just about focusing on commonality but, also, assessing baseline principles and values and ensuring that they conform in theory and practice with welcoming, creative, equitable, and inclusive environments. And, finally, it’s about accepting and making clear that as mentors we are fallible and human, and creating workspaces where others can also betray these inherently human (and humanizing) characteristics.
  • Jon Stewart Is Back to Weigh In // Jon Stewart’s comments throughout this interview are worth the read; his assessment of the problems of contemporary political media—centred around the ‘need’ for content to fuel a 24/7 media environment—as well as for the media to engage in structural assessment of practices, are on point. Similarly, his discussion of the nature of racism in American society (but, also, Canada) strikes to the heart of things: even if someone isn’t deliberately malicious in deed or thought, they are conditioned by the structures of society and power in which they live their lives. And those very structures are, themselves, racist in their origin and contemporary design.
  • Hacking Security // Goerzen and Coleman do a terrific job in unpacking the history of what is secured by computer security experts, and why certain things are within or outside of bounds for securing. Critically, while experts may be involved in protecting ‘assets’ or combatting ‘abuse’, where threats to assets or abuse arise from the underlying profit mechanisms associated with large technology companies, those mechanisms are seen as outside of bounds for security teams to engage with. Similarly, the failure of security teams to consider, or address, ‘political’ issues such as abusive speech, harmful video content, or propagation of racist or white supremacist content all showcase the need to critically interrogate what is, and isn’t, made secure, and to expand security teams by adding social scientists and humanities scholars: technology is political, and we need security teams to have members who are trained and competent to consider those politics.
  • Once Safer Than Gold, Canadian Real Estate Braces for Reckoning // Canadians have been doubling down on their debt-loads for over a decade to the point, today, that on average Canadians owe north of $1.76 per $1.00 of income, with that number rising in the country’s largest cities. Housing is particularly vulnerable and, if it is destabilized, can be devastating to the Canadian economy more broadly given that it accounts for around %15 of GDP; slowdowns in housing will delay the revival of the Canadian economy, while simultaneously threatening the ability of Canadians to stay in their homes—now—or retain their savings to invest for their retirements—in the future. If anything good comes of this, maybe it will be a reminder that allocating the majority of your savings into a single asset is, indeed, not a good long-term investment solution which could have knock on effects if investors decide they want to move to their next bubble, and let the housing bubble deflate as gracefully as possible.
  • Sure, The Velociraptors Are Still On The Loose, But That’s No Reason Not To Reopen Jurassic Park // McSweeney’s, once more, showcases the merits of satire in the vein of Swift’s A Modest Proposal, this time in the era of government failures in the face of pandemic.
  • You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument // “I have rape-coloured skin.” Not only is this perhaps the most poignant lede I’ve come across in an opinion piece in years, it also sets the stakes for the Williams’ article; the very skin of many Americans (and Canadians) is a testament to violent and racist actions taken against women who were forced from their homes to live as slaves. That testament continues, today, and not just in the monuments that were established in the Jim Crow era to deliberately attempt to continue subjugating Black persons, but in the very skin inhabited by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of enslaved people.
  • Vladimir Putin’s war of fog: How the Russian President used deceit, propaganda and violence to reshape global politics // I take issue with some of MacKinnon’s choice of language in the first ¼ of the article—he suggests that truth is substantively confused and that Putin’s tactics are more successful that I think are appropriate to concede—but beyond that he’s done a masterful job in creating an overview of who Putin is, what he’s done, and how he’s come to (and held onto) power. If you’re a long-time Russia watcher you may dispute where MacKinnon puts some of his emphasis, or in his assessment of some events, but I don’t think that you can deny that this is a helpful article that provide the broad contours of Putin’s life and career. And, after having read it, it will hopefully inspire people to learning more of the financial, military, or other scandals that have happened throughout Putin’s leadership of Russia.

Cool Things

  • iPad OS + Magic Trackpad 2 // Lots of people already have figured this out but…the new version of iPad OS + a Magic Trackpad 2 and a keyboard is a really, really compelling combination. I’ve using this as my writing and work system for a little while and it continues to prove to me how robust the iPad actually is, and how many of the pain points have been, or are being, ground away with each version of the operating system. That said, some of the gestures are very, very opaque—in particular those associated with the slide over window—and so you may want to review how, exactly, those gestures really work to get the most out of the process (and not get frustrated when certain windows just won’t go away!)
Link

This Man Is the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America

This Man Is the Most Dangerous Political Operative in America:

Breitbart’s genius was that he grasped better than anyone else what the early 20th century press barons understood—that most readers don’t approach the news as a clinical exercise in absorbing facts, but experience it viscerally as an ongoing drama, with distinct story lines, heroes, and villains. Breitbart excelled at creating these narratives, an editorial approach that’s lived on. “When we do an editorial call, I don’t even bring anything I feel like is only a one-off story, even if it’d be the best story on the site,” says Alex Marlow, the site’s editor in chief. “Our whole mindset is looking for these rolling narratives.” He rattles off the most popular ones, which Breitbart News covers intensively from a posture of aggrieved persecution. “The big ones won’t surprise you,” he says. “Immigration, ISIS, race riots, and what we call ‘the collapse of traditional values.’ But I’d say Hillary Clinton is tops.”

GAI is set up more like a Hollywood movie studio than a think tank. The creative mind through which all its research flows and is disseminated belongs to a beaming young Floridian named Wynton Hall, a celebrity ghostwriter who’s penned 18 books, six of them New York Times best-sellers, including Trump’s Time to Get Tough. Hall’s job is to transform dry think-tank research into vivid, viral-ready political dramas that can be unleashed on a set schedule, like summer blockbusters. “We work very long and hard to build a narrative, storyboarding it out months in advance,” he says. “I’m big on this: We’re not going public until we have something so tantalizing that any editor at a serious publication would be an idiot to pass it up and give a competitor the scoop. ”

To this end, Hall peppers his colleagues with slogans so familiar around the office that they’re known by their abbreviations. “ABBN — always be breaking news,” he says. Another slogan is “depth beats speed.” Time-strapped reporters squeezed for copy will gratefully accept original, fact-based research because most of what they’re inundated with is garbage. “The modern economics of the newsroom don’t support big investigative reporting staffs,” says Bannon. “You wouldn’t get a Watergate, a Pentagon Papers today, because nobody can afford to let a reporter spend seven months on a story. We can. We’re working as a support function.”

Given that the CEO of Breitbart is going to be the new CEO of Donald Trump’s campaign, it seems appropriate to read and reflect on how Bannon has successfully positioned both his news organization – Breitbart – and the thinktank – GAI – such that their news and investigations pervade the media.

The core takeaway is that Bannon understands the media in a more systematic (and arguably deeper) way than Trump. The question, however, is whether that understanding be sufficient to re-invigorate Trump’s campaign amongst traditional conservatives and undecided voters.

Link

Dollar Shave Club and The Disruption of Everything

Dollar Shave Club and The Disruption of Everything:

The implications of this go far beyond P&G: fewer Gillette razors also mean less TV advertising and no margin to be made for retailers, who themselves are big advertisers; this is why I argued last month that the entire TV edifice is not only threatened by services like Netflix, but also the disruption of its advertisers, of which P&G is chief.

The importance of looking at secondary consequences of product disruption – in this case with regards to men’s razors – is key to mapping out the still-developing Internet-inflected economy. If it’s razors today, what might it be tomorrow?

Link

How ‘white hat’ hackers could help in the Ashley Madison investigation

How ‘white hat’ hackers could help in the Ashley Madison investigation:

TORONTO – It’s not every day that the police appeal to the hacking community to help investigate a wide-scale hacking incident.

Because much of the Ashley Madison data leak unfolded on the dark web, it makes sense that authorities are appealing to “good” hackers who may have engaged with those behind the leak to come forward. However, according to cyber security expert Chris Parsons, it could have major implications.

“Such hackers possess a technical skill set and may use it to analyze leaked data or to try and track down or identify those suspected for leaking the Ashley Madison data,” said Parsons.

“The danger…is that in hunting for suspected leakers some parties may act beyond, or outside, the law in an attempt to help authorities. In the course of behaving this way they might actually endanger the investigation’s legitimacy or even compromise legitimate evidence.”

Parsons added that without a clearer set of ‘terms of engagement,’ police could bring on further investigations into those “recruited” to help them – putting a strain on resources and risking the integrity into the investigation into the Ashley Madison data breach.

Link

Feds considering warrantless access to internet subscriber info: police chiefs

Feds considering warrantless access to internet subscriber info: police chiefs:

OTTAWA – A new administrative scheme that would allow police to obtain basic information about Internet subscribers without a warrant is one option being considered by federal officials following a landmark Supreme Court ruling that curbed access to such data, Canadian police chiefs say.

A researcher who has long pressed for more transparency around police access to subscriber data said Monday that law-enforcement agencies have yet to make the case for warrantless access – especially since companies can make information available quickly in a genuine emergency.

“We’re not at a point where it’s clear the police have a legitimate concern,” said Christopher Parsons, a postdoctoral fellow with the Citizen Lab at Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

In June last year, the Supreme Court ruled police need judicial authorization to obtain subscriber data linked to online activities. The high court rejected the notion the federal privacy law governing companies allowed them to hand over subscriber identities voluntarily.

The court judgment came amid swelling public concern about authorities quietly gaining access to customer information with little evident scrutiny or oversight.

Parsons wants police to release more statistical information about their requests. “They actually have to make the argument with data, so we can have an evidence-based policy discussion.”

He would also like to see civil society groups and others included in the discussions about possible legislative change.

 

Link

Twitter closes off ability to track and repost politicians’ deleted tweets | Toronto Star

Twitter closes off ability to track and repost politicians’ deleted tweets:

Twitter has shut off the ability of more than two dozen accounts to track and repost tweets deleted by politicians and other officials in 30 countries around the world, including Canada.

Christopher Parsons, a fellow at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, said Twitter’s decision shows that the company “is unwilling to have its API routinely used to monitor what people have tried to delete.

“It appears as though Twitter is saying, ‘Look we know it’s possible, but we don’t want it being done.’ ”

According to Parsons, the weekend Twitter closures may force groups to analyze the different reasons tweets are deleted, rather than posting all deletions automatically, which could change the data’s impact.

“The way in which (the information is) published can be very different, the context can be much broader, and depending on the intent of the group in question, it could be more damning,” he said.

The debate, he added, shows the impact corporations such as Twitter can have on how public figures communicate with people.

“With the American election right now and the Canadian election going on, that’s where these sorts of deletions are often most interesting to the general public,” he said.

 

Link

Canadian companies have no incentive to report cyber attacks, like that on Ashley Madison | Toronto Star

Canadian companies have no incentive to report cyber attacks, like that on Ashley Madison:

Canada’s Digital Privacy Act, passed by Parliament in June, will require companies to report breaches once regulations are prepared. But experts say it is essentially toothless because it contains few financial penalties.

The Act will introduce fines up to $100,000 for deliberately not reporting a breach.

“There’s the obligation to report, which is, of course, positive,” said Christopher Parsons, managing director of the telecom transparency project at the Munk School of Global Affairs’ Citizen Lab.

“But without any sort of punitive consequences you run into the question of how useful is the notification itself.”

There is little data on how secure corporate Canada truly is partly because of a lack of breach notification laws, Parsons said.

Without a financial imperative to beef up security, companies are unlikely to shell out the millions of dollars required to identify and prevent them, Parsons said.

“For most companies, security is a drag,” Parsons said, adding that executives tend to reject investment in cybersecurity, where concerns tend to lead to IT professionals saying “no” to a lot of ideas, while also eating up company time, money and resources.

“All those no’s either inhibit fast fluid business, or they increase the cost and the friction of anything a company wants to do.”
Meanwhile, hackers are getting more sophisticated, but they don’t even need to because the defence systems are so weak, Parsons said.

“If you’re a hacker, you have to succeed once; if you’re a defender, you have to succeed every single time.”

 

Link

So your name is in the Ashley Madison database … are you a cheater? | Metro News

So your name is in the Ashley Madison database … are you a cheater?:

“There was no requirement for verification prior to being added to their database,” said Christopher Parsons, a post-doctoral researcher and cyber-security expert at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab.

“It’s entirely possible that people’s email addresses were added by friends or co-workers as a prank.”

But, he said, the likelihood of that “is somewhat low.”

Just because someone’s email address can be found in the database doesn’t mean they were active users who committed adultery. They could have just been curious about the site, Parsons said.

While those who registered for the site using their official, government-issued email addresses may be naïve, Parsons said some of them may have done so intentionally.

“Perhaps they share a personal email account with their spouse or partner,” he said. “Using their government account might have been seen as safer.”

Although there have been larger data breaches in the past, Parsons said the Ashley Madison hack is worrying because government officials found using the site could become victims of blackmail.

It’s happened after data breaches in the U.S. and could happen just as easily in Canada, he said.

 

Link

Partnership between NSA and telecoms pose both security and privacy risk, experts say

Partnership between NSA and telecoms pose both security and privacy risk, experts say:

Speculation remains as to whether the programs still exist, but as Cohn said: “The story that [these documents] tell is [the NSA is] just grabbing more, and more, and more, and more. Nothing in this six-year span is of them getting anything less. [So our] best guess is that trajectory continued.”

Christopher Parsons, postdoctoral fellow, Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs, seconded Cohn’s thoughts and expressed surprise that no documents have indicated any change in programs.

Even if Americans aren’t exactly concerned about their data, per se, Parsons reminded that beyond losing its citizens’ trust, the U.S. government loses diplomatic credibility through these leaked documents. The government can’t argue for a free and open internet if it monitors foreigners and its own citizens, he said.

“If you use the internet, and the data goes through the U.S., the government is spying on it,” he said.

Link

Encryption: Officials seek ‘backdoor’ entry points; critics decry government overreach

Encryption: Officials seek ‘backdoor’ entry points; critics decry government overreach:

In other words, University of Toronto’s Chris Parsons wrote on Twitter, “you either support backdoors, or you support the murderers and child abuser.”

“I think that each company will have to evaluate the corporate risks associated with implementing any backdoors,” Mr. Parsons, a postdoctoral fellow who studies privacy and security at Citizen Lab, a division of the university’s Munk School of Global Affairs, told The Washington Times this week.

“While satisfying U.S. and U.K. government authorities might (temporarily) relieve pressure, the companies would suffer tremendous international criticism and suspicion were they to undermine the security of their products,” he continued, adding that a likely plummet in profits, if nothing else, “will buttress corporate principles and force companies (on their shareholders’ behalfs) to maintain their current security stances.”

Neither Google nor Apple has publicly responded yet to this week’s op-ed, but Mr. Parsons in Toronto says that it’s so far been promising to hear that law enforcement can’t crack a type of encryption that now comes standard.

“To a certain degree, it is reassuring that consumer-level encryption is sufficiently robust that even state authorities find it challenging to break. People and businesses entrust highly sensitive information and capabilities to their devices, and so this affirmation confirms that criminals who steal devices will have similar difficulties in using these against their owners,” he told The Times.

But it’s also reassuring, he added, “because the adoption of these strong standards is a result of companies acknowledging that law enforcement and other state agencies are overreaching in their access to customer data,” including federal and local security and law enforcement groups.

“Legal protections have simply not kept up with the people’s privacy expectations, and the adoption of these strong standards is an encouraging sign that companies are responding accordingly,” he said. “The reality is that, while this may close off one avenue of investigation to state agencies, these agencies now have access to more information with fewer legal restrictions than at any time in recent history.”