The strange case of the artist and the hacker

Globe and Mail

The home of Byron Sonne and Kristen Peterson in Toronto. Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Anna Mehler Paperny

Toronto — Friday, Jun. 25, 2010

Byron Sonne and Kristen Peterson are life partners leading very different lives.

Mr. Sonne is a computer expert whose job is to delve deep into the realm of complex electronic security networks; in his spare time, he frequents “hackerspaces” and derides the way people are monitored in their everyday lives.

Ms. Peterson’s world is more creative: A visual artist with multiple degrees under her belt, she has become known for creating multimedia installations that make normal structures – a wall, a doorway – seem like what they’re not.

If he’s the daredevil hacker, she’s the one neighbours see gardening outside, who ensures he comes home on time.

Now both Mr. Sonne and Ms. Peterson are accused of planning ambitious, potentially deadly attacks just as Toronto launches headlong into the largest security undertaking in its history.

The charges police laid out against the couple this week accuse both of collecting ingredients to make powerful explosives commonly associated with terrorist bombings, as well as possessing potato guns with the aim of endangering the public. Mr. Sonne is also accused of mischief and two rare charges of intimidating members of the justice system.

The couple made brief appearances in the same courtroom within 24 hours of each other this week. Bail hearings for each have been pushed back to Saturday to accommodate a continuing police investigation. Uniformed officers have been clustered around their house since Tuesday afternoon, much to the bemusement of neighbours on the treed residential street; they say they know nothing of the couple save for their breathtaking front garden.

Kristen Peterson

But friends of both Mr. Sonne and Ms. Peterson say they’re convinced the charges stem from an innocent prank – an academic experiment gone awry.

Mr. Sonne, a Certified Information Systems Security Professional (although his certification has been suspended now that he faces criminal charges), who has worked at Webkinz, nCircle Network Security and FSC Internet, isn’t the only security expert in the family: John Peterson, Ms. Peterson’s father, owned Digital Security Controls Ltd., an electronic security company that was later bought by Tyco International. He holds multiple alarm-system patents.

Mr. Sonne’s views on security and surveillance are no secret: His Twitter feed over the past several days was replete with counter-surveillance tips, taking careful note of flaws in G20 summit security measures as fences and CCTV cameras went up around downtown Toronto. His Flickr account documents, in painstaking photographic detail, cameras, fencing and barricades.

Mr. Sonne’s musings about testing the limits and vigilance of security organizations predate the G20, said Seth Hardy, a former member of HackLab T.O. – a community hackerspace based in Kensington Market. Nothing illegal, Mr. Hardy insists, but buying potentially suspicious material and “seeing if anything came about.”

But the onset of the summit “really changed things,” Mr. Hardy said. “It raised the stakes a lot.”

In posts on a HackLab T.O forum as far back as last fall, he said he had “ordered all sorts of lab equipment and chemical precursors in an attempt to purposefully raise flags and get ‘the man’ to take a look at me… but no luck. Everything’s arrived with minimal delay, I’ve successfully passed several police and RCMP background checks for various licenses, crossed into the USA multiple times with zero hassle … so draw your own conclusions.”

Colleagues say Byron Sonne is well respected in his field of computer security and runs his own consultancy called Halvdan.

Shortly after news of Mr. Sonne’s arrest came out, one of the first thing former his fellow HackLab member said was, “his wife is going to be very, very angry for quite some time.”

Which made him doubly shocked to find out early the next morning that she faced charges as well.

“She’s known as being the person who takes care of Byron – the person to make sure he didn’t stay out all night,” he said. “We would make jokes about him being whipped. [But] he appreciated that – having someone look out for him.”

Both come from well-off families in the Toronto area: Ms. Peterson’s father holds the $1.1-million mortgage on the couple’s Forest Hill home, which was raided by police on Tuesday.

Mr. Sonne’s parents, who live in Brampton, Ont., own a property in Tiny Township, the bucolic Muskoka town where police conducted a subsequent search the next day in search of further evidence.

Ms. Peterson has been both a student and instructor at the Toronto School of Art and the University of Toronto’s visual arts program, where she earned a Master’s degree and taught an advanced tutorial. She has had exhibitions at the Stantec Window Gallery, the Convenience Gallery and the city’s Spadina Museum, where she was an artist in residence in 2006.

Toronto artist Lyla Rye remembers working with Ms. Peterson on the Hart House Installation Collective that same year. Ms. Peterson’s contribution to the project, whose website called it “contemporary art in unconventional spaces,” a bricked-over archway, using a kind of tape “to create this illusion of perspective – of a corridor receding into this space,” Ms. Rye said.

Neither Mr. Sonne’s parents nor Ms. Peterson’s wished to comment.

“Thanks for calling,” Valerie Sonne said from her Brampton home. “But I have no comment.”

With reports from Sarah Boesveld and Celia Donnelly


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