Girls in Rochdale. Photo: Getty Images
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How the Rochdale grooming case exposed British prejudice

Daniel Trilling reports from Rochdale in the aftermath of a trial which saw nine men convicted of rape, trafficking and conspiracy.

“Just because we live here, it doesn’t alter our standards in morals,” Tom says as he hands me a mug of tea. We’re sitting in his living room at the front of a neat council semi in Heywood, on the outskirts of Rochdale in Greater Manchester. Four years ago, his 15-year-old daughter fell victim to a gang of men who were grooming young teenage girls for sex. In May this year, after an agonising and protracted struggle to bring the case to trial, nine of the men were convicted of offences ranging from rape to trafficking and “conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with a child”.

It was not the first such case to come to light in Britain, but the trial provoked outraged coverage, pundits reaching for quick and easy ways to explain the terrible crime. To some, race or religion played a defining role – all five of the victims were white, while their abusers were all Muslims of British Pakistani or Afghan origin. Others pointed to a defect of character in the girls themselves which, in the words of one commentator, made them “happy to give up their affection and their beauty to men in exchange for a packet of crisps or a bit of credit on their mobile phone”.
 
For Tom, it is this blaming of the victims that hurts most. The mantra, originating from police officers, has been that the girls came from “chaotic, council estate backgrounds”, as if this somehow lessened the crimes, or explained them. “[My daughter] wasn’t a bad kid,” Tom says. “She wasn’t into stealing or shoplifting. And she certainly didn’t ask for it. No matter what you think of society and the way it’s going, girls aren’t that cheap. We’re talking about children. And it could be anybody’s children.”
 
**
 
It was the summer of 2008 when Tom and his wife – married for the best part of 20 years – began to notice that something was wrong with their eldest daughter. She was cheekier than her siblings, and a bit more mischievous, Tom says, but she would socialise with her family and always be home by ten at night. That July, however, her behaviour changed “almost overnight”. The girl became withdrawn and stopped doing what she was told. She would use “coarse and vulgar language” in front of her family, and started to come home tipsy or, at times, much more seriously drunk. After a family argument, she moved out of home to stay with one of her friends.
 
Yet nothing prepared Tom and his wife for what they would discover a few weeks later, one night in August. The police phoned to say that their daughter had been arrested on suspicion of criminal damage – she had smashed up the counter of the Balti House takeaway in Heywood. When detectives began to interview her, however, she poured out an awful story: she had been raped, on repeated occasions, by a gang of men. They would ply her with vodka or beer and threaten her with violence if she did not do as she was told. Was she telling the truth? Tom had arrived to collect his daughter from the police station and he remembers how, on their way out of the interview room, an officer turned to his daughter and said, “I believe you, because there’s somebody else come into the station and said the same thing.”
 
By accident, officers had stumbled on a crime of frightening proportions. Girls as young as 12 or 13 were being trafficked around the north-west of England. Men who worked in the takeaway trade or as taxi drivers – professions that gave them unsupervised access to young teenagers – were grooming girls by offering them gifts, slowly winning their trust, and then forcing them to have sex. Some victims were driven between Rochdale, Oldham, Bradford and elsewhere to have sex with men for money. Others were duped into thinking they were in a relationship.
 
Many of the abusers were known only by their nicknames: “Master”, “Tiger”, “Car Zero”, “the Ugly One”. The gang employed a teenage girl – her peers nicknamed her “the Honey Monster” – to lure in fresh victims. She was paid a £200 finder’s fee for each one. (The police did not charge her because they decided that she, too, had been a victim of the abuse.)
 
As Tom explained to me, this was a carefully planned crime. “They [the abusers] don’t just say, ‘Oh, I’ll give you a free kebab if you have sex with me’ – that doesn’t happen. They become your friend. Girls are told, as my daughter was always told, don’t speak to strangers – but these men aren’t strangers any more.” Children like Tom’s daughter would go to the Balti House and other takeaways where gang members worked to socialise. The men would befriend them, over a period of weeks or months, offering free food or free taxi rides home. “It made me feel like I was pretty,” Tom’s daughter told police. Then they would be invited to a seedy flat above the takeaway, or driven out to the countryside, and told they had to repay the favour. “It’s part of the deal,” Tom’s daughter was told the first time she was raped. “I gave you vodka, now you give me something.” Only then, after working to build up trust, would the threats of violence begin. One witness told of how one man slit his own wrist and then threatened to cut her throat if she did not have sex with him.
 
But in August 2008, the gang had been uncovered: the police found a suspect’s DNA on Tom’s daughter’s underwear; two men were arrested and charged. Yet the victims’ ordeal was far from over. Months went by without news. 
 
It took the police 11 months to send a file to the Crown Prosecution Service, which then decided in July 2009 not to prosecute, for fear that Tom’s daughter would not be a credible witness. Only in late 2010 was the case taken up in earnest and arrests made that would eventually bring the gang to trial.
 
Yet, in the months that followed Tom’s daughter’s arrest, she continued to be abused and her parents, with no support from social workers, were unable to prevent it. Worried that the police were on to them, the gang passed her to Abdul Aziz, 41, a taxi driver, who would transport her between houses where she would be raped by up to five men in one night, several times a week.
 
For two years, the authorities knew a terrible crime was happening, but nothing was done to protect the victims. (The five girls who tes­tified in court represent a fraction of the victims. To date, the police have identified at least 47 suspects.) Rochdale is not the only town where grooming has taken place, but could this have happened anywhere? Why, for instance, did there seem to be such a steady supply of new victims?
 
**
 
“We’ve certainly got a specialism in this town,” Jonathan Rigg says, as he shows me around the school that his company runs for children who have dropped out of the education system. It has recently been given a glowing report by Ofsted inspectors. “If it was engineering or IT, I think it would be celebrated. But just because it’s childcare we all keep our heads down and duck under the table.”
 
Rigg is the director of Meadows Care, the largest provider of private care homes in Roch­dale. With 47 homes in the borough, run by companies ranging from independent local firms like Rigg’s to branches of private-equity conglomerates, it is something of a growth industry. In the fallout from the grooming trial, the issue of private care homes has loomed large, and the homes have been blamed for dumping large numbers of vulnerable children, from all over the country, on Rochdale’s streets. (For context, Haringey in north London, a similar-sized borough, has just two private care homes, compared to the 47 in Rochdale.)
 
Here’s why: when a local authority anywhere in the country needs to take a child into care and it doesn’t have any free beds of its own, it sends out an email to private providers. Some local authorities will email all the companies they know of; others will have agreed on a list of preferred providers. But the principle is the same – whoever can offer the home and support that best fits the child, at the most attractive price, gets the commission. Like any other industry, children’s care homes have concentrated where conditions are most favourable. The north-west of England, with its modest salary costs and property prices, has proved an ideal location. In Rochdale, vulnerable children from all over the country are funnelled into homes, supposedly monitored by social workers who may be as far away as Essex or Exeter.
 
To an outside observer, it sounds like the stuff of nightmares. In May, the leader of Rochdale Council, Colin Lambert, told the BBC that the concentration of private care homes in the town had created a “loophole” whereby “the safety of children is not being guaranteed”. “Unless the child is from the borough of Rochdale we have no say in whether the child should be here, whether the home is providing what it should [and] we get no reports back on how the child is progressing . . . It is a scar and a disgrace on this country’s record of caring for vulnerable children.”
 
Press reports of the grooming trial have emphasised that one of the five girls who testified was in care at the time of her abuse – not at a home operated by Rigg’s company, but at one owned by a private-equity firm.
 
Nonetheless most of the grooming victims were not in care; like Tom’s daughter, they lived with their families. According to Simon Dan­czuk, Rochdale’s Labour MP, the real failure lies with social services. During that crucial delay – the months after Tom’s daughter’s arrest in August 2008 – you might have expected social workers to intervene to protect her and other girls. Since the trial, other Rochdale parents have come forward to say that police were told about similar abuse as far back as 2002. In 2004, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary about the grooming of girls taking place in West Yorkshire in Bradford and Keighley. Certainly by 2008, any local authority should have been aware of the existence of this crime. But according to Danczuk, when health workers for Rochdale’s crisis intervention team, an NHS clinic offering advice on abortions and sexual health to vulnerable young women, alerted social services about girls they suspected were being abused, their concerns were ignored. According to Danczuk, they were told that the girls were making “life choices” and that they were sleeping with their abusers voluntarily.
 
“Social services believed that these girls were choosing to be prostitutes,” Danczuk says now, “and they concluded, absolutely wrongly, that they should be allowed to get on with it.”
 
It was not privatisation, but prejudice, that enabled this crime to continue for as long as it did. Rochdale Council has gone some way towards acknowledging this: in June 2012, its new chief executive, Jim Taylor, acknowledged that Rochdale had “missed some opportunities to offer support to [the grooming victims] in 2008 and 2009” and promised that staff today were better informed, “to such an extent that they now see child sexual exploitation as part of a wider pattern of behaviour and offending”.
 
Nonetheless, Danczuk believes the debate over private care homes is being encouraged “to distract attention from failure by the local authority. If the issue is about on-street grooming, then I’m puzzled as to why so much emphasis has been put on children’s homes.”
 
Rigg feels that businesses such as his are being made the scapegoat and that, as a result, other local authorities have begun to avoid placing teenage girls in his homes. The New Statesman has seen email evidence, for instance, that on 26 July his company was offered a placement by a local authority in Yorkshire, only for it to be withdrawn an hour later with the explanation: “We have since been advised by Rochdale Social Services not to place vulnerable girls in and around the Rochdale area.” When the New Statesman contacted Rochdale Council, a spokesman denied that the borough was giving this advice.
 
Whatever one’s views on private-sector involvement in such a crucial public service, one can’t deny that confusion of this kind will only end up harming children’s welfare. For better or worse, Rochdale has built up significant resources and expertise in childcare – and it now risks being unable to offer these to the people who need it most.
 
Back in Heywood at Tom’s house, we talk through all this as a couple of ageing Staffordshire terriers pad around the floor between us. It must have made you very angry to have been let down so comprehensively, I say. “Not angry,” he replies. “More . . . lost, really. No one would listen to me.”
 
**
 
When some people feel lost, they become vulnerable to all kinds of predators. On the evening of 23 February 2012, a crowd of 200 – mostly teenage boys – gathered outside the Balti House takeaway on Market Street. The grooming case had finally come to trial and tensions were on the rise. Ignoring the banner above the door of the takeaway that pleaded “Under New Management”, the crowd shouted racist abuse and hurled bricks and other missiles at the shop window. Some youths chanted “EDL” – the initials of the far-right English Defence League, though the group later denied that it had had any role in the evening’s violence.
 
In Rochdale, which is home to approximately 20,000 people of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin, far-right activists spied an opportunity.
 
It was in nearby Oldham, in 2001, that tensions between white and Asian locals, exacerbated by neo-Nazi provocateurs, had boiled over into a riot. Then, in 2004, the British National Party (BNP) won a council seat in Keighley in West Yorkshire by hijacking the campaign of a local mother whose daughter had been abused. The grooming case seemed ripe for exploitation: all the girls were white, all the accused were Asian Muslim men, and they had displayed a searing contempt for their victims. “You white people train them in sex and drinking,” one of the accused men told the jury during the trial, “so when they come to us they are fully trained.”
 
Over the months that followed, both the BNP and the EDL held rallies in and around Roch­dale. A close relative of one of the victims even joined the BNP after receiving a party leaflet through the door, but left soon afterwards when he encountered the neo-Nazi ideology that lay beneath the surface talk of “fair” treatment for white people.
 
That was about as far as they got. The hoped-for confrontation never came, and to date neither group has been able to sink roots in the town. Yet the presence of the far right, and the fear of a violent backlash, were keenly felt by many Asians. Taxi drivers in particular have experienced verbal abuse, and even violence. One driver told the Manchester Evening News that many of his colleagues have given up on the job because they see it as too dangerous. Worse still, according to the youth worker Mohammed Shafiq, it has intensified what he describes as a “siege mentality” among many of his Muslim peers.
 
I met Shafiq at a Pakistani cafe near Rochdale train station, in an area of flat-fronted Victorian terraces where many of the town’s Asians live or work. It was Ramadan, and as evening drew near, people were hurrying home for the iftar meal. Shafiq told me that he first heard about child sexual exploitation in 2006, when he encountered a mother in Blackburn whose daughter had been abused. “At the time, she was blaming Islam. She had gone to the mosque leaders for help but they had slammed the door in her face.”
 
This wasn’t out of contempt, he explained, but rather a complete unwillingness to accept that it was anything to do with them. “If you look at it from a religious point of view,” Shafiq said, “what these guys did was evil. Islam does not sanction these sort of activities or these crimes, so, from the point of view of a mosque, it was, ‘This has nothing to do with us; we don’t encourage this sort of behaviour. If people go out and do this sort of thing, it’s them who should be held responsible.’”
 
Any community faced with the discovery of child abusers in its midst will find it hard to accept; after all, colleagues, friends – even family members – may be involved. Two Muslim Labour councillors gave character references for one of the men on trial and, according to Shafiq, “there are some parts of our community that are still in denial. People saw the BNP talking about this, put two and two together and said ‘this is just a BNP conspiracy’, against Muslims and against Pakistanis.”
 
Some white officials, in seeking to prevent the growth of racism, have tried to police debate. A senior council official told Shafiq that he was “doing the work of the BNP” by tackling the matter in public at all.
 
Danczuk acknowledges that, in the past, politicians have failed to discuss this type of crime sensitively. His Labour colleague Jack Straw, for instance, made comments last year about how some British Pakistani men are “fizzing and popping with testosterone” and see white girls as “easy meat”. Rather, says Danczuk, when race does appear to be a factor in child sexual exploitation “you have to raise it calmly and sensibly, and acknowledge that you can’t generalise on these types of issues. Because if you don’t, then right-wing extremists will come forward and say that mainstream parties are ducking the issue.”
 
What complicates matters is that Muslim and Asian men are the targets of racism. Child abuse is committed by people of all races and religions, and most child abusers in Britain are white. Although a disproportionate number of Asian men have come to trial for grooming, they represent a tiny fraction of Britain’s Asian population. Just 50 out of a total UK population of 1.2 million British Pakistanis have been convicted of this crime, yet the lurid press coverage of “Asian sex gangs” gives an entirely different impression. To some observers, it has uncomfortable parallels with the way that African-Caribbean men were demonised as “muggers” in the 1970s and 1980s.
 
The double standard is clear to see when other child abuse cases come to light. Last month, five men in Derby were found guilty of trawling the streets for vulnerable girls, then giving them drink and drugs before having sex with them. All but one of the men convicted in the Derby case were white, and though the Rochdale case dominated the headlines for days, only the Times and the Guardian reported this verdict. When, at the end of June, it was reported that the Independent Police Complaints Commission and the Association of Chief Police Officers are carrying out a rare joint inquiry into why so many police officers use their position to rape, sexually assault or harass women, it did not spark a national debate over the “culture of misogyny” among policemen.
 
Nathalie Walters, chief executive of Safe and Sound, a Derby-based charity that works to tackle child sexual exploitation, argues that the key to preventing the crime is well-informed, open discussion. Safe and Sound has trained well over 2,000 Derby social workers, youth workers and police officers in recognising the warning signs of abuse, and both the city council and the local police force have specialist responses to child exploitation. All the local agencies meet regularly to share information, and the recent convictions there are the product of this proactive approach.
 
“Any child could be a victim of this crime – boys and girls, and not just those living in care,” Walters tells me. “There’s a need to move away from the myth that it’s only Asian men who perpetrate this crime. Child exploitation happens in many ways; young people can be approached in person, via the internet or through mobile phones, and offenders can come from any community and walk of life.” And Sue Bere­lowitz, the deputy children’s commissioner, recently told the House of Commons home affairs select committee: “There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.”
 
In Rochdale, Mohammed Shafiq told me, people were inching their way towards being able to talk openly. “The progress is on the street. It’s in the cafés, in the takeaways, with people socialising in the gym. People are talking about this. There has been utter disgust at the crime, and shame that someone from our community has done this, and sympathy for the families who have had to suffer.” But, he added: “I think we’ve got a chattering class in London, where anything to do with race, anything to do with working-class people, they rub their hands with glee and decide that they’re going to inflame this. And because they [the abusers] were Asian, because they were Muslim, it just fitted their agenda.”
 
**
 
On 9 May 2012, the Rochdale grooming trial reached its conclusion. Nine men were found guilty and sentenced to a total of 77 years in prison. More arrests, and more convictions, are likely to follow. Throughout the trial, Shabir Ahmed, the 59-year-old ringleader of the gang, showed no remorse. He tore out clumps of his own chest hair in the witness box and made a female court interpreter run crying from the room. Delivering a bilious rant from the dock, he dismissed the accusations as “white lies”, cursed the “bent bastards” who had brought him to trial and denounced everyone from the prosecution lawyer and Theresa May to Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.
 
A month later, Ahmed was convicted, in a second trial, on 30 counts of child rape. This time his victim was Asian. The abuse had gone on for longer than a decade, but it was not until after Ahmed’s arrest in the grooming case that his victim found the courage to give the police full details of what she had suffered.
 
In the autumn, the various inquiries into what went so badly wrong in Rochdale will begin to make their findings public. We already know that Ahmed was motivated above all by contempt for women: all women, and not just those of a different race or religion. But a truth that may prove much harder to accept is that our own prejudices – about who falls victim to the crime of grooming and why, about what motivates the perpetrators, and about where the system is failing – enabled him and his gang to operate unhindered for so long. 
 
Some names have been changed
 
Daniel Trilling is assistant editor of the New Statesman. His book, “Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right”, will be published by Verso next month

 

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.