Unearthly home: as our numbers grow and we find ever less space on earth, living on the Red Planet becomes a tantalising prospect. Illustration: Mars Headlines Woodstock by Luis Medeiros.
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Death on Mars: would you take a one-way trip into space?

Within a few decades, we will have the technological ability to send humans to the red planet - as long as they don't want to come back home again.

“I want to die on Mars,” said Elon Musk last year. “Just not on impact.” The 42-year-old was not being flippant; he plans to use the $9bn he acquired through business ventures such as PayPal to leave earth’s orbit for ever. He believes it is the only way for the human race to guard against the fragility of life on a single planet, at the mercy of a supervolcano, asteroid strike or nuclear war.

Musk’s enthusiasm has energised a new phase of the space race: the conquest of Mars. Just over a decade ago, the US space programme looked severely dented, if not moribund. The explosion of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003 was both a human tragedy (all seven astronauts died) and a PR disaster for Nasa. Its space shuttle fleet was grounded for two years while the cause of the accident – a faulty foam block – was confirmed, and for a while it looked as if the Americans would need to cadge a lift if they wanted to get into orbit again. In his book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Chris Hadfield describes that time as “one of the lowest points in Nasa’s history” and recalls that “many Americans were grimly questioning why tax dollars were being spent on such a dangerous endeavour as space exploration in the first place”.

Now, the picture could not be more different. Around the world, an unlikely alliance of tech billionaires, state agencies and private contractors is increasingly confident that, within 20 to 30 years, human beings will once again be striking out further than anyone has gone before.

The next big prize in the space race is the second-smallest planet in the solar system, a barren desert buffeted by 100mph winds, covered in the fine iron oxide dust that gives it its distinctive colour – Mars, the Red Planet.

To get there, our species must overcome four types of challenge: technical, economic, physical and psychological. The first is in some ways the easiest, or at least the most straightforward. We need better engines, and probably better fuel, too. “We can go to the moon with the engines we have, but we can’t go beyond,” Hadfield told me when I met him in London in December, just six months after he returned from his third trip to the International Space Station. “It’s crazy to accelerate for 12 minutes and then coast for six months.” When launching probes such as Rosetta, it is possible to use the gravitational pull of the planets and the moon as a kind of slingshot. But that method is too slow for a manned spaceflight.

“All the slingshot does is change direction, really,” Hadfield says. “You can do it through this long, laborious process of dipping into the atmosphere, but it takes months – and if you have a crew on board, they’re eating food and going to the bathroom, and wearing out contact lenses … it’s impractical. We can’t provide enough tuna for people for a two-year voyage; it’s crazy.”

He believes the answer might be ion propulsion, using electrically charged particles to create thrust: “Instead of putting a large amount of fuel out of the back pretty fast, you want to put a tiny amount out extremely fast.” Nasa already uses ion propulsion in small spacecraft such as the Deep Space 1 and Dawn probes, but it requires a sizeable input of power, and to scale it up to move people would be a huge challenge. “You probably need a nuclear power plant, and that’s really hard to launch safely,” Hadfield says drily. Nonetheless, he is optimistic. “You could have said exactly the same thing about cars in 1895 or airplanes in 1940: we can’t possibly make this work until we have new engines. We’re in the 1910 phase of rocket engines – we can do it, but it’s dangerous, and it doesn’t work all that well.”

Gathering enough speed to reach Mars is only half of the problem, though. The other half is stopping when you get there. The planet has stronger gravity than the moon – it’s 38 per cent of earth’s, whereas the moon is 17 per cent – and a very thin atmosphere, which does not generate much drag to slow a descent. “The atmosphere really just gets in the way,” says Tom Jones, who flew four space shuttle missions between 1994 and 2001, when I reach him on the phone. “It’s not thick enough to use a parachute for any appreciable deceleration.”

Preparing to land the Curiosity rover on Mars in August 2012, Nasa realised that the dust kicked up by a high-speed landing could damage the vehicle’s sensitive instruments, so it developed a system known as the Sky Crane. Essentially, after a parachute had slowed down the craft as much as possible, the rover detached from it, attached to a rocket-powered platform. The platform controlled its descent until the rover could be lowered safely, then explosive charges cut the cords between the two. The platform then flew off to crash-land.

Curiosity on the surface of Mars. Image: Nasa

The Sky Crane worked perfectly, but again – it won’t scale to a human-sized craft. “The minimum size for a rocket lander that would put a couple of people and their supplies for a year and a half on the surface of Mars is something like 60 or 70 tonnes,” says Jones. “We have a huge jump in technology to go from putting one tonne on the surface with the Sky Crane technology that Curiosity used last year, with airbags for the prior landers, to something that’s capable of putting down human crew and their supplies.”

Even if we did make it down successfully, there is a whole new set of challenges in staying alive for more than a couple of seconds. “The atmosphere of Mars has a density of 1 per cent of the earth’s and it is 95 per cent carbon dioxide,” says the astrobiologist Louisa Preston, a researcher at the Open University. “If a human being stood on the surface of Mars and took a deep breath … well, they wouldn’t be able to, because there’s not enough atmosphere, but what they did breathe in would probably kill them within three minutes.”

Trying to navigate the conditions on Mars is a sobering reminder that the “envelope” in which human life can thrive is tiny. The temperature on the planet is roughly -60°C, which might not be a problem in itself (human being live on research bases in Antarctica, where it can reach -90°), except that it can also change rapidly. Your equipment might be able to cope at low temperatures, but can it deal with a swing from 2°C to -90° in a single day?

The planet is also plagued by “dust devils”, tornados full of particles, like the ones on earth, only 50 times bigger. In the past, these have helped Martian rovers by cleaning accumulated grime off their solar panels, but a gigantic storm could abrade or even destroy vital infrastructure. (Because of the low pressure, if you stood in the middle of a 100mph dust devil, you wouldn’t feel much of a wind, but your equipment might get irreparably clogged with grains of sand.)

Preston’s research focuses on another technology that is vital to long-term colonisation of Mars: gardening. “It’s in the realms of science fiction, but we have an idea of essentially terraforming – where you could change the surface of Mars by creating a more earthlike atmosphere, and you could do that by planting acres and acres of grassland and trees.” She concedes such marked changes are centuries away, and in the short term there is an international agreement not to contaminate the soil of the moon or Mars with any terrestrial algae or bacteria; we might finally have learned the lessons of ship rats, or taking rabbits to Australia. But she insists: “If you’re going to move to Mars, you want to go with plants.”

We should be able to hydrate them without bringing water all the way over from Planet Earth: Mars has ice, and it is looking more likely it might have flowing streams, too, judging by the tracks the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has recently found on its surface. There may even be life on Mars, though it’s more likely to be “extremophile” bacteria than little green men.

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One thing that any Mars mission will need is money, lots of it. It cost between $20bn and $23bn to get to the moon in 1969, when the median yearly wage was about $6,000. In 2009, Nasa calculated that the Apollo programme, with its six moon landings, cost roughly $170bn at current prices.

In an age of austerity, where will that kind of money come from? The obvious answer is the private sector: Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic is probably the highest-profile commercial operation, but its short-term ambitions are relatively limited. Although technically it goes into space – defined as crossing the Kármán Line, 100 kilometres above sea level – its passengers will get only a couple of minutes of weightlessness in return for their $250,000 ticket. (When I ask Chris Hadfield if he’d take a free ride, he replies diplomatically: “Oh, sure . . but you know, it’s quite expensive. I am so spoiled; I’ve had a tremendous experience.”)

Yet Virgin is far from the only player. A company called Planetary Resources, with a line-up of backers including the director of Avatar, James Cameron, and Google’s Larry Page, wants to mine asteroids. In 2012 Elon Musk’s SpaceX became the first private company to send a spacecraft to the ISS under a $1.6bn deal with Nasa. And the not-for-profit B612 Foundation wants to comb the skies for anything that might be on a collision course with us, to help stop a real-life remake of Armageddon.

Musk’s ambitions are the most expansive: he sees SpaceX as his ticket away from this poky planet and on to a new colony off-world. But, for any of the nascent private spaceflight companies, the discovery of valuable minerals in space, along with the technology to mine them, would create a version of the gold rush. As the former astronaut Sandra Magnus, now the executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, put it to me: “If somebody finds a way to, say, bring an asteroid here [to mine it], it’s a game-changer … because now you have the entrepreneurial spirit. The risk/reward totally changes and governments almost are totally out of the equation. It could be 20 years, it could be 100 years, but eventually that’s going to happen.”

Much has been made, too, of the increasing interest from emerging economies in spaceflight. Last year, China’s Jade Rover became the first spacecraft to land on the moon since 1976. When it malfunctioned before powering down to survive the lunar night, it was “mourned” across social media. (There is something slightly pathetic about the thought of rovers sitting on a distant world, all alone: Nasa’s Curiosity played “Happy Birthday” to itself on 5 August, the first anniversary of its landing on Mars.)

 

 

Where the “space race” was once characterised by competition, now co-operation is the order of the day. Since Nasa retired the shuttle, its astronauts have relied on the Russian Soyuz module to get to the International Space Station, crushing the hopes of all those strapping Americans who are too tall to fit in the smaller craft. There are three countries represented aboard the ISS: Russia with Mikhail Tyurin, Sergey Ryazansky and Oleg Kotov; America with Mike Hopkins and Rick Mastracchio; and Japan, with Koichi Wakata. Chris Hadfield – the best-known astronaut of recent times, thanks to his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” going viral on YouTube – is Canadian.

Because of this global alliance, the official languages of the ISS are English and Russian and all astronauts are expected to know both. “You have to remember that we all train together internationally as a group,” says Magnus. “All the time, you hear French or Spanish, German or Russian or Swedish or whatever in the hallways.” For her, this co-operation is one of the most “impressive, intangible benefits of the space station programme – the fact we made it work. All of these cultures, all of these languages, all of these different approaches to solving engineering problems, all these national agendas, the English system versus the metric system … you name it, we made it work.”

The private-sector companies aiming to go to Mars are replicating this international approach. Mars One, a project set up by the Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, announced that it would accept applications in any of the 11 languages most commonly used by people on the internet: English, Arabic, French, German, Indonesian, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, or Korean. Among the 1,058 candidates through to the second round were people from Uzbekistan, Rwanda, El Salvador, the Maldives and Saudi Arabia.

Several of Louisa Preston’s students applied for Mars One, though she didn’t fancy it. “I don’t mind being in a tin can, but I don’t like the idea of not coming back. They’ve got eight to ten years of training and education before they actually get to go, and in that ten years, what are the chances of you meeting somebody, getting married, wanting to have kids … and you just can’t do any of it because you know you’re leaving and not coming back? I couldn’t do it. They’re much stronger than I am.”

This brings us to the final element of any Mars mission, the moving part that is most likely to break down: those delicate sacs of organic tissue that need to be kept warm and dry, kept hydrated and fed, allowed to evacuate their waste, and to be protected from the vacuum of space. The humans.

 

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On 3 June 2010, six men stepped inside a suspended module at Moscow’s Institute of Biomedical Problems. The series of interconnected tubes, just 180 square metres in total (the average British home has only 96.8 square metres of floor space) was to be their home for the next 520 days. It had been designed to represent as accurately as possible the conditions that human beings attempting to travel to Mars would endure. These “astronauts” would eat dehydrated food, exercise in the gym, and visit a sauna to rub themselves down with napkins rather than take a shower. Three of them even got the chance to “spacewalk” in the sandy car park, converted to give it a passing resemblance to the Red Planet.

Although one woman had been involved in an earlier, shorter trip in the Mars mission simulator, no woman was chosen for this year-and-a-half-long stretch. A similar test in 1999 turned chaotic when the Russian captain forcibly kissed the only female crew member, a 32-year-old Canadian health specialist called Judith Lapierre. “We should try kissing, I haven’t been smoking for six months,” he reportedly told her. “Then we can kiss after the mission and compare it. Let’s do the experiment now.” Two of her Russian crew mates then had a fight so violent that it left blood splattered on the walls, prompting another member of the team, a Japanese man, to quit. Lapierre stayed only after the astronauts were allowed to put locks on their bedroom doors.

Luckily, the most recent Mars 500 mission faced no such problems. Its astronauts emerged on 4 November 2011, looking pale but healthy, the capsule’s walls apparently free from bodily fluids. But the experiment was not an unqualified boost to humanity’s hopes of getting to Mars. Four of the crew suffered sleep problems during the 17-month mission, probably related to the lack of natural daylight and close confinement. One was sleeping on average half an hour less each night by the time he left the simulation: a seemingly small difference, but one that could have had a big impact on his ability to carry out complicated tasks under pressure. Scientists monitoring the men concluded that they had, in effect, gone into hibernation. “This looks like something you see in birds in the winter,” said David Dinges at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, who led the study.

The record for continuous time in space is 437 days, a title held by Dr Valeri Polyakov since his second stint on the Russian space station Mir in 1994-95. Like most astronauts, he experienced a loss of bone density because of the lack of gravity, although he recovered when he got back to earth. The ISS is now equipped with specially adapted gym equipment to offset this problem: there are treadmills with harnesses to ground you on the running belt. But at present there is no way to replicate the effect of gravity on your hips and upper femurs; without a load to bear, the load-bearing part of your skeleton wastes away.

Probably the easiest way to solve this is to design a fancier exercise machine, rather than create artificial gravity: there’s already a gizmo on the ISS that uses an evacuated cylinder to mimic resistance, which helps build leg and arm muscles. By contrast, artificial gravity involves “spinning things”, as Chris Hadfield puts it. “They’ve talked about having a tether, where you have a spaceship here and a mass at the other end, and spin them round each other. But tethers break and then you’re dead.” He pauses. “The moon has one-sixth gravity, which is probably enough to keep you healthy.” He doesn’t add: particularly if you’re never coming home to full-strength gravity anyway.

Illness will be a major concern of any long-term space mission. Hadfield knows this all too well, having nearly missed his final flight to the ISS after suffering an adhesion of his intestines to his abdominal wall caused by an old operation. (In the end, keyhole surgery freed the sticky glob of scar tissue and he was cleared to fly.)

Chris Hadfield lands in Kazakstan in May 2013. Photo: Getty

Being in space makes every medical problem a potential emergency. It’s not just the lack of doctors or equipment; it’s the confinement in a closed life-support system. On the 1968 Apollo 7 mission, Commander Wally Schirra developed a bad cold a few days in and passed it on to the other two crew. They became so bunged up – your sinuses don’t drain efficiently without the help of gravity – that they refused to wear helmets for landing, much to Nasa’s despair. On the next Apollo flight, one of the astronauts developed vomiting and diarrhoea (in mission log jargon, this was referred to coyly as “loose BM”). It left the inside of the spacecraft “full of small globules of vomit and faeces that the crew cleaned up to the best of their ability”, in the unimprovable words of Apollo 8’s Wikipedia entry.

Now, space agencies do as much as they can to mitigate sickness by quarantining crew members for several days before they get in a shuttle (astronauts also have to wear a nappy for launch because they are strapped in for so long). Yet even if you sterilise the craft and quarantine the crew it’s impossible to eliminate all pathogens.

When flights last months or years, there is the possibility of developing chronic or degenerative illnesses, too. Several astronauts have become depressed and withdrawn: one Russian on the ISS “checked out”, as Tom Jones describes it, and his crew mates had to cover his workload.

When you talk to scientists and former astronauts, this theme of human fragility emerges repeatedly. With the ISS, only 390 kilometres up, you can bail out and come home. On a longer mission, you can’t.

Since the Columbia shuttle disaster, Nasa has carried out extensive “war games” to test for the impact of astronauts’ death, liaising with the family, working out who will deal with the media, debating how to dispose of the body. That becomes even more vital when a Mars mission is on the cards. Oddly, half a century after Laika the dog orbited the earth for a few hours before expiring from overheating, many people would find it easier to accept the death of a person than an animal in space. After all, the human being chose to take the risk.

The last piece of the puzzle is the most intractable: can we cope psychologically with leaving the only home we’ve ever known? And can a small crew live in such a small space for so long without either retreating into themselves or having a punch-up? No one knows, but our experience so far provides useful indications of what not to do.

The space shuttle Atlantis. Photo: Getty

First, Sandra Magnus says, astronauts must be kept busy. “How many of us are just comfortable being couch potatoes, where we sit on the couch for 25 hours and don’t do anything else?” she asks. “We’re very busy on the space station. Even in our downtimes when we were ‘off from work’, there were things to do. Some of it was just taking pictures and cataloguing pictures, or watching movies and things like that.” It is unlikely that Mars colonists could surf the internet or chat with friends: there would be a 20-minute delay in communications with earth. (Even now, the internet on the ISS is so slow, it can barely stream YouTube videos.) And they couldn’t pass the time looking out of the window. As Tom Jones says, “Hadfield and I had the joy of looking at the earth if we cared to: it was always different, always amazing. When you’re on a cruise to Mars there won’t be anything to look at except the stars. And even then, if you have the cockpit lights turned up and you look out the windows, you’ll see just black.”

Second, astronauts need personal space. On the ISS everyone has a private cubicle, but a travelling craft is more crowded. “The shuttle was more like a camping trip, in that you would unroll your sleeping bag at the end of the day and stake your ground,” Magnus says. The selection of astronauts is crucial to cope with a confined space; Hadfield’s book describes how the alpha-male “Top Gun” test pilots of early Nasa missions have given way to more easygoing types. One suggestion, put forward by the non-profit Inspiration Mars Foundation, is that the ideal crew to send to Mars is a middle-aged married couple who are used to spending lots of time together; give them an allotment and a box set of Midsomer Murders and they’ll be happy as Larry.

Whatever the challenges in getting to Mars, everyone I asked was confident that they were not insurmountable. “I’d say 2040 is a reasonable guess [for the first flight],” says Jones.

The pioneering spirit that took us to the top of Everest and the bottom of the sea, that drives people to spend the winter imprisoned on an Antarctic research base, will always win out. Despite the risks – perhaps because of the risks – there are people alive today who probably will die on another planet. They’ll look up at the pale blue dot in the sky and, unlike any generation before them, that planet won’t be their home.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Space Issue

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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.