Brace of rivals: Theodore Roosevelt and his vice-president William Howard Taft. Photo: Getty.
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A presidential bromance: Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft

The long association of two rock-ribbed Republicans was a political friendship that defined an era of American political history.
The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt and the Golden Age of Journalism
Doris Kearns Goodwin
Viking, 928pp, £20
 

There he is, the third from the left, tucked into a cleft between Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, carved into the granite of Mount Rushmore. No one today doubts his right to be there. His reputation and popularity are undimmed by a century’s passing. He was the youngest man to assume the American presidency. He was a cowboy, a swimmer, an asthmatic. He had a dazzling smile, with teeth like pieces of Chiclets gum. He fought in Cuba, leading a charge up San Juan Hill to give the Spanish a licking. A 50-page wad of speech notes in his pocket once saved him from an assassin’s bullet. He turned the Grand Canyon into a national monument. He built the Panama Canal. He won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was a Republican but a mortal enemy of giant corporations. The teddy bear was named after him.

He also gave Doris Kearns Goodwin the perfect title. In 1909, he declared that the White House was a “bully pulpit”, the finest means of getting his message out to his people – at home, the “square deal” (protecting citizens and curbing plutocracy); abroad, the “big stick” (“Speak softly and carry a big stick”). Goodwin, now accepted as the publicly anointed biographer of great American statesmen, no doubt had more than enough material to load several shelves with the tumultuous story of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th US president. But wisely, over the seven years of her project, she decided to weave into the fabric of this robust, endearing life two further threads, each equally important, making this a vastly more important work, a masterpiece of modern American history.

One thread, noted in the subtitle of the book, concerns the role played by journalism and by a manner of writing that, during Roosevelt’s governance, displayed an excellence that has been seldom matched since. Samuel Sidney McClure’s eponymous monthly magazine, which gave voice to writers such as Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens, marked an all too brief period of literary glory. It also enabled Roosevelt, who had a canny and trusting appreciation for the muckraking press, to employ the industry for, as he saw it, the greater public good.

“By sharing the full context of each decision and appointment before it became public,” Goodwin writes of her subject’s time as state governor of New York, “Roosevelt trusted that Steffens would credit and document the complex, pragmatic manoeuvring behind an ethical and effective approach to leadership.”

Cynics might suggest that, as president, he had journalists such as Steffens in the palm of his hand and may ascribe his enduring popularity to his excellent personal PR. Yet more thoughtful analysts (Goodwin among them) would argue otherwise: that in a climate markedly more trusting than today’s, good relations between press and government could be made to work to universal advantage – provided that the muckrakers did indeed rake much muck, as Tarbell and her colleagues consistently did.

The other thread that Goodwin weaves into this story – and that forms an important component of the book’s US subtitle but is puzzlingly overlooked in Viking’s British edition – concerns a most poignant counterpoint to Roosevelt’s generally triumphant life: the melancholy fate of his long-time friend, protégé and successor as president, William Howard Taft.

The sorry tale of Taft deserves to be remembered if only because of its many parallels with what appears to be happening in Washington today. Just like Barack Obama, Taft began his public career as a man suffused with promise and optimism. He was born of a solid Cincinnati family a year before Roosevelt. He went to Yale; Roosevelt went to Harvard. Both became lawyers.

The men first met when they were near neighbours in Washington, as they were beginning their very different climbs to the high ranges of power. Their philosophies were at the time markedly similar, yet quite out of tune with the times, in that both were superficially rock-ribbed Republicans but aflame with progressive principles. They were fiscally conservative, born into fortunes; they were, however, socially liberal and infused with populist beliefs. Each was an unalloyed admirer of the benefits of capital; but each wished for an end to the era’s fondness for cronyism and corruption. Each was a firm believer in American exceptionalism; each saw it as the duty of America to export its benefits to the world.

For a while, however, their paths diverged. Roosevelt went to Albany as governor of New York and then became William McKinley’s running mate in his successful 1900 election. Taft, meanwhile, was far off in Manila as the governor general of the newly colonised Philippines.

In 1901, McKinley was assassinated – an event that gave Roosevelt, quite unexpectedly, the presidency. One of his first acts was to bring his old friend Taft smartly back from the tropics, instal him in Washington as secretary of war and groom him to be an eventual successor, the keeper, as he saw it, of the progressive flame. Roosevelt intended to serve two terms and then hand his torch to Taft.

As Goodwin recounts with flair and sympathy, the torch was soon extinguished. Taft, who generally scorned the press and followed the letter of the law with pedantry and a wholesale lack of imagination, turned out to be something of a dud in the Oval Office (which he built). With one dithering decision after another, he managed to vex and disappoint all of his supporters, much as the beleaguered President Obama appears to be doing today. In the end he fell out with his old friend Roosevelt, who became for many years a political enemy – Roosevelt fought against him in the 1912 election, splitting the Republican vote and giving the White House to Woodrow Wilson.

And yet, politics aside, both were wise and decent men and they eventually buried the hatchet. In one of the more moving passages of this lively and very human book, Goodwin recounts their celebrated meeting in 1918 in the dining room of a Washington hotel. Taft heard that his old friend was alone and “spotted the colonel at a small table by the corner window. ‘Theodore!’ he exclaimed. ‘I am glad to see you.’ Roosevelt rose from his seat and grasped Taft’s shoulders. ‘Well, I am indeed delighted to see you. Won’t you sit down?’ All across the room, customers rose from their dinners and the wait-staff paused . . . Suddenly the chamber erupted into applause.”

Roosevelt died soon afterwards but there was still much life left in Taft, who, after a period at Yale, became chief justice of the Supreme Court – he remains the only man to have held both of these highest offices of the republic. To some extent, Taft recovered from the disappointments of his presidency.

We can only wonder whether Obama will manage to do the same. One thing is certain: neither will receive the Mount Rushmore treatment, even if there were another cleft in the granite.

 

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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.”

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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.