Q&A with Yasser Morgan, URFA Vice-President Academic

What makes Yass­er Mor­gan, URFA Vice-Pres­i­dent Aca­d­e­m­ic and Pro­fes­sor of Engi­neer­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Regi­na, smile when he enters a Cana­di­an air­port after return­ing from a trip? How do stu­dents in Morgan’s cours­es begin study­ing ten hours a week vol­un­tar­i­ly? What is one high­light of his work with URFA to date? Find out in this Q&A.

What inter­est­ed you in becom­ing involved with URFA?

In the last decade, prob­a­bly, there has been changes in the way the uni­ver­si­ty is man­aged. And I was orig­i­nal­ly focused exclu­sive­ly on my research, but as we moved on, I found that it’s insuf­fi­cient to work on the research and ignore oth­er aspects of the aca­d­e­m­ic life.

You recent­ly joined the Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tee as the Vice-Pres­i­dent, Aca­d­e­m­ic. Have you vol­un­teered with URFA in oth­er capac­i­ties before that position?

Yes, I was always on COR (Coun­cil of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives)—I rep­re­sent­ed engi­neer­ing and I joined dif­fer­ent com­mit­tees with URFA. I’m pret­ty famil­iar with URFA’s work.

What are the respon­si­bil­i­ties of the posi­tion of Vice-Pres­i­dent, Academic?

Cur­rent respon­si­bil­i­ties, the for­mal ones, is attend­ing par­tic­u­lar meet­ings and play­ing the role of con­sul­tant to the pres­i­dent. But I would like to real­ly broad­en the role of VPA. For now, I’m lis­ten­ing, I’m learn­ing, but cer­tain­ly this role should be increased. Ten­ta­tive­ly, what I’m dis­cussing, with the pres­i­dent, is that we need to have engage­ment with aca­d­e­mics. And I see that there is a huge role for Vice-Pres­i­dent Aca­d­e­m­ic to work in this area. 

Has there been a high­light for you so far of any of your com­mit­tee work or your involve­ment with URFA?

The work we did on the def­i­n­i­tion of anti­semitism is very good. I’m glad there is a wide under­stand­ing of the issues rel­e­vant to that. I write in oth­er mag­a­zines on Islam­o­pho­bia and anti­semitism. It’s impor­tant to give researchers the free­dom to look at his­tor­i­cal evi­dences, ancient man­u­scripts and being able to dis­cuss and vet claims and under­stand­ing. I’ve found that most aca­d­e­mics have very good under­stand­ing of the role of sci­ence in society.

We need to under­stand the role of fair­ness and jus­tice and dis­tin­guish that from the role of sci­ence and acad­e­mia. It’s not easy to always under­stand those thin lines split­ting the two con­cepts. But pret­ty much I would say the major­i­ty of aca­d­e­mics have it clear in their minds. The pub­lic, on the oth­er hand, does­n’t have the same clar­i­ty and we want to take our mes­sage out in the field and try to make the pub­lic under­stand our work.

Could you say more about what you mean by that dis­tinc­tion between fair­ness and jus­tice, and sci­ence and academia?

Absolute­ly. Let me speak as a per­son with a Mus­lim back­ground, let me speak about Islam­o­pho­bia. The term Islam­o­pho­bia means the unjus­ti­fied fear of Islam. But we should be able to dis­cuss Islam itself, its ideas, and have fear of it, that’s very legit­i­mate. The prob­lem or the actu­al­i­ty of the term — it’s typ­i­cal­ly used to defend Mus­lims against prej­u­dice and racism. So, we need to main­tain the term with its prop­er use, although the lin­guis­tic mean­ing may be misguided.

The same applies for anti­semitism. It does­n’t mean that Judaism itself is pro­tect­ed from look­ing at ancient man­u­scripts, dis­cussing it, and com­ing back with ideas and re-explor­ing his­to­ry or crit­i­ciz­ing his­to­ry or even crit­i­ciz­ing the state of Israel. But it means we should be sen­si­tive to the Jews and under­stand that we are not sup­posed to pro­mote hate against Jews that could lead to violence.

That dis­tinc­tion is impor­tant. That’s why you find aca­d­e­mics in their hall­ways hav­ing dis­cus­sions that if tak­en out­side the aca­d­e­m­ic hall­ways, it may seem inap­pro­pri­ate or offen­sive, but we are actu­al­ly doing our nor­mal day-to-day science.

Do you see a role for URFA or unions more broad­ly in help­ing to address some of the con­cerns and the impacts that come about from Islam­o­pho­bia, anti­semitism or oth­er forms of discrimination?

I see a role for us to work on one side, edu­cat­ing the pub­lic on how to dis­tin­guish between look­ing for facts, under­stand­ing the facts, and doing research and the hate­ful mes­sage that could be blown around in soci­ety, espe­cial­ly around social media. The prob­lem with social media is you need to act your mes­sage in 140 char­ac­ters or a pret­ty quick video, that’s one or two min­utes, where you want to con­vey a com­plex mes­sage. This is where things get con­fus­ing and the dis­tinc­tion in our role becomes fuzzy and could lead to unin­tend­ed consequences.

Headshot of Yasser Morgan.

Shift­ing focus to your aca­d­e­m­ic work, could you share about your research and work?

In the 1990s, out of my mas­ters evolved the idea for the Cana­di­an pass­port, which was adapt­ed by a com­pa­ny that hired me and then our plat­form became the stan­dard. It result­ed in a cou­ple of patents in this area — it’s the Cana­di­an pass­port secu­ri­ty fea­tures. Now, about 99 per cent of world pass­ports are using the same sys­tem of secu­ri­ty we cre­at­ed in the 1990s.

Then I joined mul­ti­ple stan­dards orga­ni­za­tions, did some work on con­nect­ed vehi­cles and then I came back to the area of secu­ri­ty. Most of my work now is focused on the area of secu­ri­ty. Now we are work­ing more and more on some of patent­ed tech­nol­o­gy for cypher­ing videos and detect­ing alter­ations in videos. I did also work with RCMP here, it’s known as the BRIC (Bridg­ing Research and Inter­op­er­abil­i­ty Col­lab­o­ra­tion). I found­ed that project and it’s pret­ty known in the Uni­ver­si­ty of Regi­na and in the RCMP.

It must be very neat to be a part of so many accom­plish­ments, and ones that affect mil­lions of peo­ple around the world, like with the pass­port secu­ri­ty features.

It’s real­ly nice. When I land in Toron­to, com­ing from over­seas, or Van­cou­ver, and look from top — and then go down the hall­way and see all of these those 3M machines over there and I look at them, it’s nice. 

When you do [secu­ri­ty work], you get exposed to how dif­fer­ent coun­tries view pri­va­cy dif­fer­ent­ly. For exam­ple, in Ger­many at the time, they had laws that pro­hib­it encod­ing infor­ma­tion in a doc­u­ment that an indi­vid­ual can­not see with his visu­al eye. So, you can’t, for exam­ple, say that this per­son is from par­tic­u­lar descent or even he’s dia­bet­ic. In Cana­da, you can­not say on a doc­u­ment that some­one is dia­bet­ic unless he can clear­ly know that the doc­u­ment he’s hold­ing in his hand is reveal­ing per­son­al health infor­ma­tion. As you look at dif­fer­ent coun­tries doing things dif­fer­ent­ly in the world, it’s very infor­ma­tive and it’s a good learn­ing because dif­fer­ent coun­tries have dif­fer­ent back­grounds and dif­fer­ent his­to­ry and they tend to be sen­si­tive about dif­fer­ent things.

Jump­ing ahead now a cou­ple of years to your cur­rent work with arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence (AI). What does that work involve and are there chal­lenges that that you may encounter?

Well, there is a typ­i­cal issue we have, like right now we start­ed to teach ethics in AI. We have a new course for ethics. The prob­lem is the AI machines are irre­versible, like you can­not reverse engi­neer it, and you can­not know what rules they have adapt­ed. But they adapt rules based on how we teach them. The famous exam­ple is if we con­tin­u­ous­ly show faces of white peo­ple then the machin­ery will be hav­ing a hard time dis­tin­guish­ing dark skin colours. The same hap­pened in skin can­cer — if we show white skins then dis­tin­guish­ing the colours on dark skin becomes problematic.

My area I’m work­ing on dis­tin­guish­ing attacks before it hap­pens. I have an arti­cle on that that came in The Con­ver­sa­tion and I have anoth­er one com­ing up. Basi­cal­ly, the main issue is how do we dis­tin­guish an activ­i­ty to be an attack? His­tor­i­cal­ly, we haven’t been able to do that, so we tend to cre­ate what we call an anom­aly or an out­lier. It’s basi­cal­ly say­ing there is some­thing sus­pi­cious here; we don’t know nec­es­sar­i­ly that it’s an attack.

So we are not in my area, as exposed to eth­i­cal issues, but we are exposed to the inabil­i­ty to dis­tin­guish attacks from non-attacks. This is still very dif­fi­cult to our AI engines and we are work­ing on enhanc­ing that.

What do you think is the most impor­tant rea­son for hav­ing the research that you’re doing?

Oh, major ones. You have the attack that hap­pened on Colo­nial Pipeline, blow­ing half the entire East Coast of the USA, all blocked from the sup­ply of fuel just because of an attack. It was a ran­somware and they asked for $4,000,000 in that case, and Colo­nial Pipeline had to end up pay­ing. We had that being repeat­ed on JBS Foods and then it keeps going. It hap­pened on one of the online dat­ing sites, Ash­ley Madi­son, and on Bom­bardier in Canada. 

This is being repeat­ed and actu­al­ly I would love to expand my research towards trac­ing cryp­to cur­ren­cy. While there should be, again, an eth­i­cal debate pre­ced­ing the research, should we or should­n’t we be able to trace the mon­ey? Gov­ern­ments will always say yes, it’s a good idea and non-gov­ern­ment enti­ties would say the oth­er way around and that should be more of a nation­al dis­cus­sion. But nev­er­the­less, it’s a very inter­est­ing area.

Is there some­thing in your cours­es that stu­dents are sur­prised by or par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in?

In my under­grad­u­ate secu­ri­ty course, I take them through dif­fer­ent secu­ri­ty tech­niques and then I divide them into groups and I ask them to start cipher­ing their com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Then I start teach­ing them how to end un-cipher and then they start com­pet­ing. All your mes­sages have to be in the open and then it becomes inter­est­ing when they start un-cipher­ing each other’s mes­sages. And that makes stu­dents real­ly excit­ed and they go out of their way, like if they nor­mal­ly study for two hours a week, they start study­ing for 10 and 15 and it increas­es because they are motivated.

Has COVID had an impact on your teach­ing and your abil­i­ty to con­nect with your students?

It’s not easy to know if stu­dents are fol­low­ing up. Noth­ing is equiv­a­lent to the face-to-face inter­ac­tion. You can see it in in the eyes of stu­dents I’m strug­gling or I can­not under­stand this. But online we are not allowed to get them to open their cam­eras, you don’t see their faces. I even asked my last group of last year I asked them before they grad­u­ate, if the pan­dem­ic has gone, come to my office and just let me know that you are my student.

Do you have any advice for URFA mem­bers who are look­ing to become more involved with URFA?

Ide­al­ly, I want to have a group that can go and read the col­lec­tive agree­ment once a year between dif­fer­ent groups of aca­d­e­mics and then come up with ideas for the next round of the bar­gain­ing that would be real­ly inter­est­ing. Most peo­ple are not involved, not aware — until they have prob­lems — they are not aware of cer­tain issues in the col­lec­tive agreement.

This inter­view has been con­densed and edited.