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.
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.