Experts take on the latest hacks and leaks at U of T's upcoming McLuhan Salon

Photo of Mark Surman
U of T alumnus and Mozilla Foundation Executive Director Mark Surman will be participating in Thursday's McLuhan Salon (photo by Joi Ito via Flickr)

The leak of an alleged intelligence memo about U.S. president-elect Donald Trump divided the media on whether or not to publish its details or acknowledge its legitimacy.  

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former U.S. army intelligence analyst who leaked classified documents to WikiLeaks – a move that was praised by many but received harsh criticism from Republicans.

Tonight, the McLuhan Salon is taking on its most timely and contested topic yet. Ripped straight from the headlines, “Hacks, Leaks, and Breaches: Chronicles from the Cybervillage” will dissect the latest news and address hotly debated issues around cyber security.

Participants include Mark Surman, a U of T alumnus and executive director of the Mozilla Foundation, McGill University's Gabriella Coleman, an expert on Anonymous, and Mathew Ingram, a senior writer at Fortune Magazine.

The salons, inspired by the late U of T professor and influential media theorist Marshall McLuhan, are hosted by U of T’s McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology and are held at different Toronto venues every month. Tonight's salon takes place at the Toronto Reference Library.

“The role played by WikiLeaks, Anonymous or trolling in recent years is no longer a niche cultural phenomena,” says Paolo Granata, visiting professor, McLuhan Centenary fellow and salon organizer.

These organizations, often called “hacktivists,” have been a game changer in their ability to influence global politics, says Granata.

“For this reason, we need to understand what is at stake in a networked society in terms of security and privacy, rights and freedom,” he says.

High profile government operatives-turned-leakers such as Manning and Edward Snowden have been central to shedding light on these issues, making them a hero to some and an enemy to others.

“We certainly benefited from people having the courage to leak information,” says Surman. “It helps us understand what's really going on, on the Internet. I personally think of Snowden as a hero as many do.”

Ingram is interested in discussing the thorny ethics surrounding hacks and leaks.

“When is it okay to report on and when is it not? It's a difficult question – and the goalposts keep moving,” he says.

Coleman will explore the ways digital leaks came into being.

“What's really interesting is that its history is remarkably recent even though the technical possibilities to engage in this form of hacking to leak has existed for 25 years,” she says.

The spate of hacks and leaks has forced companies and governments to learn hard lessons, but they still aren’t going far enough to protect themselves, says Coleman.

“This is a perennial issue, and you'd think with each new hack and leak and breach, that organizations would get their security act together. So far, there have been small steps in that direction, but it's very slow going.”

The salon provides a unique opportunity to have a public discussion outside of the Internet echo chambers – something Ingram and Coleman are looking forward to.

“I've never seen so many shows about hacking and so much news media, but it's hard to understand what the public thinks,” says Coleman. “[The salon] will provide an interesting barometer for how people are receiving this news, what they think about security, and whether they find value in some of these leaks – some of them are very, very controversial.”

Ingram wants salon participants to weigh in.

“I would like to hear their thoughts about whether they feel less secure, and whether they think the media should be publishing things like people's personal emails just because they can,” he says.

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