Immoral icons

The annual Stirling Prize celebrates British achievement in architecture. But the winning buildings

What happens to an icon when the cameras leave? Does architecture actually "regenerate" an area, or is it a mere handmaiden to gentrification? These are the sort of questions that tend not to be asked of Stirling Prize-winning buildings. So, with this year's RIBA Stirling Prize, the winning entry was presented as the latest instalment of a long-running political/architectural vendetta rather than a place which will have its own particular use and history.

At least Prince Charles must be annoyed. Having made several high-profile attacks on Richard Rogers (now co-director of Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners), he finally won a direct victory through the cancellation of RSHP's Chelsea Barracks Housing Development, achieved through persistent lobbying of the estate's Qatari developer, a fellow blue-blood. This spat has since provided light relief in an architectural press more concerned with the mass unemployment the profession has faced after the crash, providing a polarised fight between the forces of reaction (in the form of the monarchy) and progress (in the form of Lord Rogers, as much a New Labour apparatchik as a once outrageously talented architect). RSHP's two 2009 nominations were already seen as a political statement, even before their Hammersmith Maggie's Centre, a small building for the care of cancer patients, became the second of Rogers' prizewinners, three years after their architecturally dramatic, environmentally dubious Barajas Airport.

This is a reminder that the Stirling Prize can provide drama often lacking in the buttoned-up world of architecture. The Prize started in 1996, as a conscious attempt to provide an architectural equivalent to the Turner, Mercury or Booker Prizes, using competition to bring it to public consciousness. The early winners were 80s hangovers - a coldly high-tech university building by Stephen Hodder, a historical-reference-riffing music school by Michael Wilford - but this was before "regeneration", the utterly ubiquitous Blairite buzzword-cum-building policy that promised to remake the presumably "degenerated" cities.

So the Stirling Prize truly established itself in the public eye, with Channel 4 assistance, in the form of a run of prizewinners in former industrial or working class areas. Will Alsop's Peckham Library in 2000, Wilkinson Eyre's Gateshead Millennium Bridge and Magna Science Centre in Rotherham, Herzog & De Meuron's Laban Dance Centre in Deptford. With the addition of the 2004 winner, Foster & Partners' 30 St Mary Axe (ie, "the Gherkin"), these buildings defined the architectural production of Blairism at its height. This is the architecture of the "urban renaissance", of the "icon", of the "Bilbao effect", after Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum, saviour of the Basque city.

It generally takes place in an area once devoted to either working class housing or industry. It has an instantly recognisable, logo-like form. It is usually a building for leisure rather than work or housing, and it tends to be grinningly optimistic, achingly aspirational.

These buildings have often been critiqued from a functional perspective. The Leeds-based practice Bauman Lyons commissioned a study into a selection of Stirling Prize-winning buildings, finding out from their regular users and staff that they had some rather mundane defects: leaking roofs at Magna, overheating at the Peckham Library, cracking glass at the Laban Centre. This has been used by traditionalists to critique the largely modernist biases of the judges, although recent investigations into Prince Charles' planned village of Poundbury revealed similarly shabby structural failures, without even the excuse of experimentation - and at least no Stirling-winning building has ever suffered from a leaking false chimney.

These functional critiques do reveal something of the short-termism of iconic architecture, with a building as much as an album or bestseller being allotted a mere 15 minutes of fresh-faced fame before use reveals its limitations - but it ignores a more interesting story of the close fit between these buildings' forms and their functions, the way their politics interweaves with their bright colours and their gymnastic engineering.

We could start with the Peckham Library, winner in 2000. Peckham is one of those inner-London districts about which, perennially, "something must be done", and in this case that something was a library. Unlike many other prize-winning schemes there is no doubting the building's importance, and it is very well used, albeit with a notable lack of books. Unlike David Adjaye's Stirling-nominated Tower Hamlets "Idea Stores", managerial bullshit hasn't entirely replaced self-education, and it's comforting that an area would have a public facility as its most monumental and impressive building, with the word "LIBRARY" rising unmistakably from its green cladding and obligatory wonky pillars. Yet the ideology of regeneration presents such buildings as a fait accompli, single-handedly improving the lives of those in impoverished areas, while the result is more often the middle classes moving into them - such as the end of Peckham estate agents call "Bellenden Village".

The 2001 and 2002 winners, where industrial spaces were converted to leisure by architects Wilkinson Eyre, were a more obvious colonisation of urban space. The Magna Science Centre (note the amount of "Centres" here) was once the Steel, Peech and Tozer steelworks, and now offers up this technical process as an (admittedly astonishing) spectacle, as part of a redevelopment mostly consisting of a desolate business park and attendant call centres. The Gateshead Millennium Bridge, meanwhile, is the centrepiece of what is arguably the most typical example of the once-vaunted "Urban Renaissance".

Downriver of the Tyne Bridge, a section of Gateshead's riverside was turned over to two immediately "iconic" buildings - the biomorphic undulating glass shed of Foster's Sage Music Centre, and a Cyclopean Joseph Rank grain silo that was redesigned by Ellis Williams into the Baltic Centre For Contemporary Art. Coals may now be delivered to Newcastle, but culture has come to Gateshead. What is seldom mentioned is how this ensemble relates itself to the surrounding area. Springing up behind the Baltic is a cluster of poorly designed, poky "luxury" tower blocks with attendant car park (far less architecturally distinguished than Owen Luder's awesome "Get Carter car park" in central Gateshead, currently being demolished as an obstacle to regeneration). While this little cultural district is poorly connected to Gateshead's estates and terraces, it is directly linked to the executive flats of Newcastle Quayside - via the Millennium Bridge, an etiolated structure representing the ease of an allegedly leisured society, as opposed to the fiercely mechanical Tyne bridges upstream.

Stirling Prizewinners often have very direct effects on their surrounding areas, which seldom feature in the brochures and television programmes. The Laban Centre, Herzog & De Meuron's dance school in Deptford, South-East London, winner in 2003, is a fine combination of the alien and the familiar, its drizzly metallic skin curving around the Creek. Adjacent, under construction, are a series of blocks of flats of significantly inferior architectural quality (which are nevertheless "in keeping") who claim on their hoarding to be "inspired by dance", and proclaim their sponsorship by RBS.

In almost all of these examples, the prizewinning building has become the advance guard of gentrification, each "icon" bringing in its train a familiar menagerie of property developers' "stunning developments", aiming to change the area's demographics. Perhaps aware of this, the Stirling judges have lately been veering away from the spectacular and iconic in favour of something more upstanding. David Chipperfield's Marbach Museum of Modern Literature, the 2007 winner, was a stern stripped-classical temple redolent of Fascist-era Italian architecture, sombre enough to calm even Prince Charles' nerves.

Recipient in 2008 was Fielden Clegg Bradley's Accordia, a housing estate in Cambridge. This was explicitly couched as an anti-iconic statement in the context of the financial crash, amusingly, as its self-effacing soft-modernist courtyards hide an indubitably luxury development, for affluent folk who prefer not to flaunt their bling. There is an "affordable" bit, where far smaller houses abut a nuclear bunker, built for the site's former incarnation as an MOD base. The bunker tends not to feature in the photos.

The 2009 Stirling shortlist presented a New Labour menagerie - finance capital, private meddling in public services, shopping and surveillance. Aside from a winery by RSHP and a retro-modern art museum by Tony Fretton, there was an office block for Scottish Widows by Eric Parry, in London's financial district; a jolly PFI Health Centre by AHMM, commissioned by the private-public Local Improvement Finance Trust (LIFT); and BDP's masterplan for Liverpool One, a privately owned and patrolled "mall without walls". If these had won, the jury would have given their implicit imprimatur to the City of London, the Private Finance Initiative or urban Enclosures.

Yet the Maggie's Centres are the sort of buildings many architects might prefer to build - places with a genuinely humanitarian purpose, although most would hope never to visit one. The Centres are named after the late Maggie Keswick Jencks, a designer and writer who founded a charity to commission world-class architecture for informal cancer-care centres, attached to NHS Hospitals. Perhaps Rogers won not because of republicanism on the part of the Royal Institute of British Architects, but because his Maggie's Centre was the only building the judges could morally justify.

Owen Hatherley's "Militant Modernism" is published by Zero Books

 

Fox via YouTube
Show Hide image

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.