An uncivil partnership

Paul Kagame’s oppressive regime has hurt the British government’s hopes of an international aid succ

One afternoon in the hamlet of Mwoga in south-east Rwanda, I met a 43-year-old single mother named Mary Nyiratabaro. Wearing a bright orange igitenge dress, she was holding a piece of paper in her hand which, for her, signalled security. Rwanda is a country of 11 million people, most of whom live in rural areas and work as subsistence farmers. In the past, the state owned the land, but a British-funded programme to formalise and digitise land ownership is changing that. By 2014, the Department for International Development (DfID) will have spent £23m providing title deeds to about eight million smallholders, guaranteeing them ownership of land and providing collateral for bank loans to cover seed, fertiliser, a cow or school fees. The land reforms allow women to inherit and bequeath land for the first time.

“It gives me great confidence to have land to pass on to my children," Mary told me. "It is my land now and with this certificate I can make long-term plans."

Later, in Kanombe, a suburb of the capital, Kigali, I visited the Efotec secondary school. As classes broke up for lunch, the students stood to sing. Rwanda is a God-fearing country, mostly Catholic but with a rapidly growing Pentecostal movement, and from the red-brick, tin-roofed classrooms, I could hear hymns being sung. Then I heard a different song al­together and saw bemused children being led by a young British man from Wolverhampton through a rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot". For two weeks this summer, Arun Photay, a banker and Conservative Party member, was a teacher with Project Umubano, a social action volunteering scheme.

Andrew Mitchell, now Secretary of State for International Development, set up Umu­bano in 2007. During the years of opposition, the project became an incubator of Conservative development policy. It also taught Tory politicians the importance of a success story. I found Stephen Crabb, an affable Conservative MP from South Wales, sitting on a desk in a classroom. "Tories used to have little interest in development, but when Andrew [Mitchell] talks about development he's talking about what he's seen and learned through Umubano.

“This project is about how we think and how we do development," he said. "There's a uniqueness to Rwanda because of the genocide history and unspeakable suffering [it caused] but the wider application of what we learn here is you need a government that provides security and stability for development to take hold."

President Paul Kagame, who was born in the village of Ruhango, central Rwanda, in 1957, has applied military discipline and a rule of near-Leninist order since his rebel Tutsi army, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), invaded the country and ended the three-month-long genocide in 1994. As many as 900,000 people were murdered between April and July that year, most of them ethnic Tutsis or so-called moderate Hutus. Many of them were killed by their neighbours or people they knew. Ethnic Hutu husbands murdered their Tutsi wives.

It has been the self-appointed mission of the soldier-politician Kagame to rebuild a wrecked and divided country. In this cause, his government has been generously supported by foreign states, perhaps motivated by guilt at their failure to intervene in the spring of 1994 to halt the genocide. Kagame's achievements are considerable, even if his methods have been harsh, and he has as many admirers as he does disparagers in the outside world. But he is admired in particular for the discipline with which he has led the country back from the abyss and towards a future that, he has said, will help Rwanda become a technology-based, middle-income country - an African Singapore.

On 9 August, Kagame was re-elected for a second and final seven-year term with 93 per cent of the vote. Because two opposition parties were blocked from standing, all three of his rivals were members of his ruling RPF coalition. However, his victory was overshadowed by the mysterious deaths of political opponents and critics, and by the closure of independent newspapers. In June, Jean-Léonard Rugambage, acting editor of the banned newspaper Umuvugizi, was shot in the face and killed in Kigali. In the same month, a dissident general survived an assassination attempt in Johannesburg, South Africa. Then, in July, André Kagwa Rwisereka, vice-president of the Democratic Green Party (one of the barred political parties), was murdered near the southern city of Butare. The Rwandan government denies involvement in these incidents.

None of this was surprising to those who follow events in Rwanda. In the late 1990s, there was a series of disappearances and killings, including one of a former minister of the interior, Seth Sendashonga, who was assassinated in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1998. Ahead of the 2003 presidential election, a judge "disappeared" and a politician was murdered. "It was exactly the same thing: small numbers of people turning up dead," said one western diplomat.

In spite of the turn towards even greater authoritarianism, British support for Rwanda has continued. A British government official conceded to me: "We've invested a lot of cash [in the country] and our reputation in Rwanda, which makes it very hard to back off." The repression and murders that preceded the vote are, said Tom Cargill, assistant head of the Africa programme at Chatham House in London, among "the quite unpleasant side effects" of regimes that, like Kagame's, prize security above all else. "The danger is that the example of Rwanda can lead people to have far more faith in the ability of authoritarian regimes to deliver than is often the case."

Kagame was also implicated in a UN report, published on 1 October, on the decade of violence that convulsed the Democratic Republic of Congo between 1993 and 2003. The report accused Kagame's Tutsi army of possible genocide in the Congo. "The apparently systematic and widespread nature of the attacks, which targeted very large numbers of Rwandan Hutu refugees and members of the Hutu civilian population, resulting in their death, reveal a number of damning elements which, if proven before a competent court, could be classified as crimes of genocide," said the report.

Emotional investment

To date, Britain has given Kagame's Rwanda more than £400m in aid. An agreement signed four years ago promised at least another £46m
a year for the succeeding ten years. The £55m to be given this year makes Britain Rwanda's biggest bilateral donor. Two-thirds of that sum will go directly to the Rwandan government to spend as it chooses. That shows a trust in the government's efficiency that seems well placed.Transparency International rated Rwanda the least corrupt country in the East African sub­region, according to a report published in July. The World Bank also declared Rwanda top reformer of business regulation in its annual Doing Business report, which ranks countries according to "ease of doing business".

The British government's relationship with Rwanda pre-dates the present coalition. During Clare Short's time as international development secretary, from 1997 to 2003, she had an extraordinarily close working relationship with Kagame. Today, Tony Blair sits on Kagame's advisory council along with entrepreneurs and evangelists. In 2007, Kagame addressed the Conservative party conference in Blackpool, after Andrew Mitchell had led 47 volunteers to Rwanda for the first time. "The UK has an awful lot invested in Rwanda and Kagame - financially, emotionally, symbolically," says Dr Knox Chitiyo, head of the Africa programme at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. "The irony is that the UK needs Rwanda more than Rwanda needs the UK." Rwanda proves the British government's belief that foreign aid to Africa can work. At the same time, the Rwandans can turn to many other big donors, such as the United States and the EU.

Britain is committed to giving other countries 0.7 per cent of its annual GDP as aid by 2013. The overseas development budget has been "ring-fenced" at a time when other departments are being subjected to punitive cuts. "The DfID budget will rise to £11.5bn over the next four years," the Chancellor, George Osborne, told parliament on 20 October, announcing details of the Spending Review. "We owe it to the hard-pressed British taxpayer to show that for every pound spent on development we really get 100 pence of value," Mitchell said when we met in Nairobi in July. "We will never sustain public support unless we do that. On behalf of the taxpayer, we are vigorously bearing down on value for money. We are rigorously focused on results and outcomes."

Rwanda delivers results. Take its Revenue Authority: £24m of British aid over 12 years has transformed this once-moribund office into a crucial earner of government income. The department now brings in the same amount - £24m - each month, and helps to fund free basic education and an expanded network of hospitals and health clinics. But not all the aid money is as well spent. Among the institutions DfID has funded is Rwanda's Media High Council. Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch who was expelled from Rwanda in April after the government refused to issue her with a work visa, told me that the media watchdog played a "negative role" in the run-up to the presidential elections in August, shutting down two independent newspapers and restricting free speech.

The benign dictator may be a good development partner, but only as long as he remains benign. Kagame's game plan is to maintain iron control, grow the economy and stop people talking about ethnicity until they become rich enough not to care any more. If that goal is achieved at the cost of basic freedoms, human rights and democracy, it is a price he is willing for his people to pay. But because Rwanda is small and landlocked and has few resources other than coffee, the president's partners in development, which together contribute 45 per cent of his government's annual budget, are complicit in his repression. "Rwanda brings the dilemmas of development sharply into focus," said a British official in Kigali.

Like the other diplomats and foreign aid workers to whom I spoke in the capital, he asked not to be named. As did ordinary Rwandans. At coffee shops, hotel restaurants and open-air bars, people would lean in solicitously or glance over their shoulder when talking. Human rights activists speak of a "climate of fear". Even behind the fortress-like walls of one of the western embassies, the diplomat I met paused mid-sentence when a local employee walked by. Nobody has long conver­sations about sensitive matters on the phone, for fear of tapping, and journalists expect to
be shadowed.

Still Hutu v Tutsi?

Victoire Ingabire was studying in the Netherlands at the time of the genocide and stayed there until January 2010. When she returned to Kigali, it was as the chairwoman and aspiring presidential candidate for the FDU-Inkingi party. As soon as she arrived in Rwanda, Ingabire, an ethnic Hutu, visited the main genocide memorial in the hills above Kigali and demanded that Kagame - and, by implication, all Tutsis - acknowledge that during Rwanda's long history of violence, crimes against humanity were also committed by the Tutsi minority against Hutus before and after the genocide.
Her words were incendiary in a country where the designations "Hutu" and "Tutsi" have been removed from identity cards, and all but erased from open conversation. Kagame never refers to himself as a Tutsi, but only as "Rwandan", and encourages others to do the same. This is as politically expedient as it is socially necessary: Tutsis dominate the government yet account for only 15 per cent of the population.

I met Ingabire, who is 42, in a red-brick house in the "Vision 2020" estate (named after Kag­ame's plan for the rebuilding of Rwanda) in Kigali. Her party was blocked from registering for the August poll and she is facing charges of "genocide ideology", "divisionism" and supporting a Congo-based Hutu "terrorist" group. "Everyone in Rwanda is afraid," she told me. "Tutsis are afraid that if they lose power they may be killed; Hutus are afraid that if they speak out they will be accused of having a 'genocide ideology'."

Ingabire was frustrated by Kagame's supporters in western governments. "The international community is not pushing Kagame to accept democracy in our country, and that is a real mistake," she said. "What they want, and what Rwandans want, are not the same thing." Since we met, Ingabire has been arrested; late last month, she was charged with terrorism and moved from her house, and is now in jail awaiting trial.

In Rwanda, western donors are increasingly compromised: they speak of democracy and human rights while offering no resistance to creeping autocracy. "Rwanda shows the limits of aid, because it is very difficult for a donor nation to bind together development aid with good governance and democracy," said Knox Chitiyo of the RUSI. Although Britain generously helps to bankroll the Kagame regime, there is no evidence that aid delivers influence. After all, to cut off aid punishes not the ruling elite, but ordinary Rwandans. "Rwanda demands real questions of what values are important to the west in their development partners, and what western countries can do about it if they're not happy with their partners' values," said Tom Cargill of Chatham House.

There are few answers, but nor is there clear proof that the western democratic model is a faster track to prosperity than the kind of non-democratic path that Rwanda is following. The second route is made even smoother by the influence and deep pockets of China, whose presence and investment in Africa continue to grow. China's centrally controlled, repressive model of governance has nevertheless hauled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

The danger for a Conservative-led government that claims to champion individual freedoms and has forged such close associations with Kagame and Rwanda is that the success story is harder to sell when written by an autocrat. One of the diplomats I met in Kigali had been left disillusioned by "waves of repression. We all construct these imaginary futures where Rwanda opens up political space, democratises and so on," he said, "but where is the evidence? These are just fantasies."

 

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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.