Here in Canada we take technology for granted. Our personal data is relatively secure, Internet access is unfettered and no one comes pounding at our door demanding to see our software licenses. In much of the rest of the world this is not the case.
Three University of Toronto students are doing their part to help others circumvent the constraints imposed by authoritarian governments. Prof. Ron Deibert, an associate professor of political science who focuses on technology, media and world politics, runs the Citizen Lab from the basement of the Munk Centre for International Studies building on the U of T campus in downtown Toronto. The lab is a place where technology and civic activism come together. Here Graeme Bunton, Michelle Levesque and Nart Villeneuve work with Prof. Deibert on a variety of projects using technology for social advancement.
Though the work at the lab covers everything from documentary film making to research and development, one area that kept everyone busy last year was their work in civic activism. This work eventually took them to Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico where the three, along with Prof. Deibert helped teach (and learn from) local IT and human rights workers everything from security to Linux.
In areas of the world like Guatemala, where political oppression has a long and painful history, governments grasp at any tenuous straw to impose their will.
While in Guatemala the students were told how alleged software piracy is often used as an excuse for government agents to raid the offices of political and social activists and confiscate their computers. Here in Canada the worst case scenario is a letter from a lawyer.
The trip to Guatemala in June of last year was the result of a convergence of research being done at the lab on Internet Security and an ongoing relationship with TV Ontario and film director Mike Downie. The resultant three-part documentary "Hactivista" aired on TVO in December.
“I came up with an idea that was something like (the) Mod Squad," Deibert said, where I would "send them off on missions." Deibert chose his team well. Bunton is the hardware, front end and computer graphics guy. He is a forth-year political science major who started in technology using a Vic20 years ago, learned on his own and doesn't have much interest in taking traditional computer science courses. Villeneuve is the "30,000 feet" idea guy and de facto spokesperson of the trio. He just graduated with a multi-disciplinary degree in Peace and Conflict.
Levesque, the lone computer science major of the bunch and in her forth year, covers the development side. “She gives us our tech creed,” Deibert laughed. Levesque is more generous, saying that they all are tech savvy but have different areas of expertise “It actually works very well, we have enough overlap so we can communicate with each other and know what we are talking about and yet we also have almost every single field (covered),” she said.