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Ethical Tech: An MLH Initiative

MLH Ethical Tech Initiative Scholarship

07 July 2018

I am incredibly honoured to announce that I am the winner of the 2018 Major League Hacking Ethical Tech Initiative! See the official announcement from MLH for more details.

downloadWinning Submission

The Backstory

Way back in September 2017, when I was beginning my second year at the University of Guelph, I fell victim to my greatest weakness and proudest strength: ambition and overcommitment. At the end of that summer, I figured that, Hey, September is always a joke, I'll have soooo much free time. I don't want to be bored. I'm gonna do everything. I didn't quite anticipate that the school year would actually begin so quickly and with such vigour, so I applied to a ton of hackathons back-to-back, wrote up proposals to speak at conferences, etc. I got word that I'd be speaking at Starcon at the University of Waterloo. I got accepted to two premier hackathons in North America: Hack the North 2017, and MHacks X. A bunch of other things happened, and I also got swamped with school work, so I had to prioritize these commitments. They would be the best experiences that the semester had to offer.

So after starting school, and before I could really get settled into any sort of schedule, I was putting together teams for these two hackathons. Hack the North was a rush. Located in my hometown of Waterloo, Ontario, it attracted more than a thousand hackers from across the globe. I met some really awesome people and built a cool piece of software after having to pivot a bunch of times. MHacks X was a totally different experience.

I had convinced my friend Ace to apply to MHacks with me, and when we received word that we'd been accepted we were really excited. We'd done local hackathons before, but never travelled for one. MHacks was in Ann Arbor, Michigan — we were excited to hop on a bus full of hackers to get there.

The bus didn't happen. While I managed to get a hold of one of the free bus tickets, the entire set of them was taken within 12 hours and Ace missed his opportunity. We suspected shenanigans with the ticketing system, and were worried that Ace wouldn't be able to come. I didn't want to travel on my own either... so Ace borrowed his parents' car and we ended up driving 5 hours south on our own.

At MHacks we had no idea what to build. The sponsor prizes were not to our taste, and we were a bit lacking on inspiration. The drive was long, we got lost trying to find parking, and were late to registration. We grabbed some food and got acquainted with Salem — he'd come on his own from Chicago and was looking for a team. We decided to work with him, and had someone to bounce some ideas off of.

Together, we ended up building stegamsg, a unique proof-of-concept messaging platform that uses images as delivery containers for text.

There are two hard things in computer science: cache invalidation, naming things, and off-by-one errors.

— Phil Karlton

"Stegamsg" is a shitty portmanteau of "steganography" and "messaging". We created an anonymous group messaging platform that allowed one to trade messages with peers in a channel, while only sending image data (and HTTP headers) over a network. We thought it was cool, and so did a representative from the NSA who was at the judging area. He gave each of a card, probably not knowing that Ace and I were Canadian (and thus would never be able to work for them).

Our hack didn't end up winning anything, and we went home exhausted. I forked our project and filed it away at the back of my mind as something to revisit in the future. I thought it was a cool thing, even if it didn't meet the criteria of any of the judges at the event. I had school work to do. There were more serious programming projects to tend to, and I had research to do at the University of Guelph... and a presentation about ethics in tech to write for Starcon.

Some amount of time later...

These details are a bit fuzzy for me since Fall 2017 was a bit of a blur for me, but post-hackathon I received a survey from MLH about ethical tech. With my proposal for Starcon on my mind, and the hackathon still fresh in my head, I filled it out once my immediate school commitments were taken care of. The survey asked about MHacks, and requested an abstract and a few short responses to questions like: Is your project or technology usable by a wide range of users? Who are they?, and What are potential consequences? Steps taken to mitigate unintended consequences from your project? Would those consequences hurt anyone?

Late one night I drafted some responses, wrote up an abstract, gave them a couple quick read-overs, and pressed that big ol' "Submit" button. I subsequently forgot that I had even done so, save for the draft document that I later found on my computer when I was cleaning up my file-system.

The rest of the school year was just stupidly busy — I moved to Guelph from Waterloo when my carpool stopped being a thing... and I had to deal with horrible housemates... and I had to face an "angel of death" course... and I had research and development to do for my work on the eNuk Project... and I had to apply for jobs and figure out where I was going to spending my upcoming 8-month co-op term... and, and, and, and, and, and. Suffice it to say I was stressed, and had little to no downtime. I completely forgot that I had applied to the Major League Hacking Ethical Tech Initiative.

Surprise! You're a finalist!

Fast forward to mid-June this year. A couple months earlier I'd just finished my academic year on a really strong note, and moved out west to start a new job at Left Inc. working on the RightMesh project. On one fateful Tuesday afternoon I received an email from Chris Wilkinson of MLH with the following subject line:

> Hey, Keefer! You're a finalist for the Ethical Hacking contest from MLH!

I found myself thinking, Holy f***! Is this for real!? I was ecstatic. Ethics and hacking, the bridges between technology and society — these were things that made up the biggest part of my identity over the past year. I was one of 20 people selected worldwide for a chance at $10 000 USD. The challenge? More writing prompts. The resulting series of short essays took over my life for the next two weeks, and when they were finally ready, I sent them off and crossed my fingers with high hopes.

The importance of ethics in technology

When I say that ethical technology makes up a large part of my ethos, I don't kid around. Over the past few years, I've grown tired of seeing scandals in the news about Uber, or Facebook, or Google, or Microsoft, or Equifax, or whoever taking advantage of people with their tech or being complacent with the information that is trusted to them. I spend a lot of time thinking of, promoting, and building equitable technology solutions and replacements for problems and processes in the world. In highschool I started Tokumei as an alternative to "traditional" social media, at the University of Guelph I've been heavily involved in the eNuk Project aiming to improve quality of life in Northern Canada, and recently I've taken a junior position with Left Inc. in an effort to improve and change the way the world connects via the RightMesh Platform. Technology (and internet connected software in particular) is an extremely powerful force, which may be used for social good or detriment. The initiative that MLH and Omidyar Network put together to challenge and assess the thinking of the next generation of hackers is extremely meaningful to me, and I couldn't be happier that it exists and ethics are being considered seriously at the forefront of innovation.

I am also incredibly happy to announce that — to top off all the events of the past year — my submission was selected as the winning response for the initiative. While I don't have all the details yet, the $10K prize will be used to fund travel to any tech conference in the world for myself and my team from MHacks.

I'm eyeing the 35C3 (35th annual Chaos Communications Congress) in Leipzig, Germany as a potential (and f***ing awesome) place to spend the scholarship. More details to follow, but hopefully Ace, Salem, and I can reunite in Europe this winter. My boyfriend of 3 years, Tomas, is already getting excited about the excuse for a trip to Germany with me

Countdown to 35C3