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Ruins of people’s lives

The shadowy subculture of gang stalking.

In 1919, the psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk published his famous paper “On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia”, in which he wrote about patients who believed they were under the control of malign technology beyond their understanding. Sometimes, they claimed, this technology would cause “erections and seminal emissions that are intended to deprive the patient of his male potency and weaken him”. In typical Viennese fashion, Tausk concluded that “the influencing apparatus is a representation of the patient’s genitalia projected to the outer world . . . a machine independent of the aims of the ego and subordinated to the foreign will”.

Right away, we might be reminded of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, in which Tyrone Slothrop may or may not have been secretly conditioned to get an erection every time a V-2 rocket is about to strike London. Yet to find more patients for Tausk, we don’t need to look to fiction. “At first I believed they could only terminate my erection, but recently I also started believing that they could create my erection,” writes the author of a recent blog about electromagnetic persecution by the government. “Often I am given erections in co-ordination with the brain butchery, and occasionally voided of semen,” writes another in the same field.      

Both these bloggers are part of an online community centred on a phenomenon called gang stalking. Gang stalking, according to one website:

. . is a covert investigation that is opened on an individual. The individual is then placed under overt and covert forms of surveillance. The person is followed around 24/7. Foot patrols and vehicle patrols are used to follow the individual around, as part of the monitoring process . . . The secondary goals seem to be to make the target homeless, jobless, give them a breakdown, and the primary goal seems to be to drive the target to forced suicide.

Gang stalking has been linked with, but doesn’t necessarily involve, remote mind control. No one has ever come forward as a perpetrator. But large numbers of people have come forward as victims.

Before the internet, if you had developed the belief that you’d been targeted in this way, you would have been isolated. Anyone hearing your story – whether a friend or a relation, or a doctor such as Tausk – would have tried to persuade you that you were suffering from paranoid delusions. But today you would find confirmation of your suspicions on dozens of websites, blogs and message boards. “When you read the methods used by gang stalkers to harass their victims,” writes one blogger, “it is helpful to know that the stories told by victims worldwide are remarkably consistent.”

You would also find information on developments similar to gang stalking that have been documented in the respectable media, such as a declassified Pentagon report on the “Bioeffects of selected non-lethal weapons” or Ealing Council signing up eight-year-olds as “Junior Streetwatchers”. You could even make some friends. In other words, you’d be part of a community – and, as the British psychiatrist Vaughan Bell points out in his paper “‘Mind control’ experiences on the internet”, the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual stipulates that a belief cannot be classed as a delusion if it is “accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture”.

Reading about gang stalking online can be dispiriting, because one has the sense that someone such as Tausk really ought to be intervening. But I confess I also find it addictive. For instance, consider one blogger who believes even birds and animals are his enemies:

Birds, pigeons and crows, that can be controlled to fly (screaming) over me, to land in my garden when I walk into my kitchen and look outside, to crash into my kitchen window and car front window while driving. Birds, pigeons, that come sit, walk, on the roof of my house when I am upstairs having sex. Cats walking by like being programmed. Barking of dogs, flying away ducks etc, not by mind control but by beaming these animals with laser beams (directed energy weapons).

An entire menagerie of animal spies – if that isn’t in Pynchon, it should be. One might also recall Kafka or Don DeLillo, not to mention Mark Lombardi, the American artist whose work consisted of diagrams of various conspiracies involving the Vatican or the World Finance Corporation.

On another website, I found a collection of photographs of household objects – folding chairs, velcro straps, long underwear – that their owner believes to have been damaged during secret incursions into his home. The pictures have such eerie power that you could easily imagine them on a gallery wall next to a William Eggleston or a Laura Letin - sky. Elsewhere, the idea of harassment through the “everyday stimuli” of “red, white, yellow, strips, pens clicking, key jangling, loud coughing, loud whistling, loud smacking of clapping of hands together, cell phones, laptops, etc” evokes Sartre’s metaphysical nausea.

Still other online writers veer towards the psychedelic visions of Philip K Dick, proposing that the gang stalkers are really “lower astral entities, some aliens/non-humans, and Neg entities in general [who] are known to feed on the energies created by lower frequency emotions, since that’s what they resonate with, farming us for them in the same way we farm animals for their meat, milk, eggs and parts”, or, alternatively, normal humans wearing “frequency suits”, which “are invisible to the naked eye, but they seem to transport either your etheric layer, or another such layer from place to place”.

This is dangerous territory, however. Yes, there are precedents for appreciating the special energies we find in work by people who deviate from the psychological norm, going back to Hans Prinzhorn’s book Artistry of the Mentally Ill (1922). After reading it, the painter Paul Klee wrote: “In our own time, worlds have opened up which not everybody can see into, although they too are part of nature. Perhaps it’s really true that only children, madmen and savages see into them” – a remark the open-mindedness of which is not quite enough to outweigh its condescension. At Lausanne’s Collection de l’Art Brut and London’s Bethlem Royal Hospital there are whole museums devoted to such art.

None of the people describing their gang stalking experiences on the internet think of themselves as making art, however. They are serious. They want their writing and photography to be taken seriously. In most cases it is harmless to aestheticise modes of expression that are not deliberately aesthetic, otherwise there could be no such thing as Pieces of Intelligence: the Existential Poetry of Donald H Rumsfeld. (And there are grey areas: although Henry Darger’s The Story of the Vivian Girls, one of the cornerstones of the very idea of outsider art, was certainly intended as a creative work, there is no reason to think it was ever intended for public consumption.)

But human misery is different. A comparison here might be what’s sometimes called “ruin porn”. I can spend hours looking at beautiful photographs of derelict houses in Detroit or condemned council estates in London, but at the back of my mind I feel guilty about it, because I’m aware that these aren’t just evocative scenery, they’re also places where people less fortunate than me actually had to sleep every night. Gang stalking websites, similarly, are the ruins of people’s lives and I shouldn’t be cruising them for ephemeral thrills. I feel the same way about a lot of amateur YouTube videos that go viral: some of those “zany characters” wouldn’t be behaving like that on camera if the US had a functional mental health-care system. This is what the philosopher Mark Reinhardt, in his essay on the idea of “beautiful suffering”, calls “a kind of morally obtuse obscuring or exploitation of pain”.

Gang stalking is more resonant than these other examples, because here we find ourselves counterpoising two different methods of making sense of the inferno in which we all live. To compare notes on gang stalking with like-minded strangers on the internet is to take part in an investigation, almost a forensic science, a project to expose what Pynchon calls “other orders below the visible”, instead of merely sitting in your house with the blinds closed because you’re worried that everyone is out to get you. And to appreciate the artefacts of this subculture on an aesthetic level is not only to look sidelong at despair: it is also to play on sensibilities that were first sharpened in us by the work of Pynchon, DeLillo, Dick and so on: writers who were themselves trying to confront a world so large, so secretive, so random, so pitiless that not much human feeling can survive in it.

These two postures differ in the important respect that one comes from a state of abjection and the other from one of literary privilege. All the same, they are both ways of coming to terms with life. I would like to say that in future I’ll spend less time on gang stalking websites, but my own work is so derivative of the aforementioned authors in its preoccupation with conspiracies that I will inevitably find myself going back to these sources to forage for inspiration. Then I will launder them in my work like dirty money. Perhaps the challenge, then, is to prove that an aesthetic attitude and an empathetic one need not be mutually exclusive – that even if I’m planning a novel about remote-control spy-ducks, I can forage and feel at the same time.

Ned Beauman’s latest novel is “The Teleportation Accident” (Sceptre, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 20 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Dream Ticket

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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.

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“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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.