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Night at the Museum

As the guardians of the souls of our communities, local cultural institutions must fight and adapt i

Remember the turn of the millennium? An era associated with shiny new buildings and the launch of major gallery projects across the country, when culture was used as an engine for regeneration. Alongside the big-money projects, there was a demand from government and funders that cultural institutions demonstrate an impact on "real people". No longer could high art be ghettoised, now that it was financed through the Lottery. Culture had to provide lessons on how to be good citizens. Diversity and accessibility became all the rage, with museum and gallery managers filling in byzantine funding applications on the benefit to society of the arts, and launching project after project that had only a passing connection to collections or core business.

The vogue for "citizenship" now appears to have passed. How committed most institutions were anyway to working with communities is questionable. Community work became an exercise in ticking boxes, when we had to take on board that not everyone believed in the intrinsic value of the arts, and funding was dependent on our ability to demonstrate instrumental value.

The initial wave of such work came broadly in two forms. First, there was a swath of initiatives connected with people's entitlement to culture. At their core was the message that mere association with great art could open the smallest mind. Wheel in a group of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, sit them in front of the right painting and their lives would be enhanced. Never mind the irrelevance to their lives; never mind that they doubtless had a number of cultures in which they already participated - this was all about ticking the right boxes while not actually doing anything very different.

Second, there were the press-worthy projects; those usually launched from the marketing department. These were often petitions or campaigns, designed to have broad social impact, built on (often literally) flashy websites. After the money had disappeared into the wallets of web developers, they usually failed to have much impact on anyone at all. But they looked good in the annual report.

Return to elitism

With a return of the notion of excellence, the changing atmosphere seems to have been met with a sense of relief that we can go back to doing what we've always done. Community projects and outreach work can be safely abandoned. Funding is no longer reliant on such things, and the prospect of a public school-­educated Tory government suggests elitism will be the new Stygian hue. In financial terms, things haven't changed, however. The funding for major museum works is still there and is seemingly unconnected to the needs of much of the population, if the recent work on the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is anything to go by. Over £60m spent and an aim for only 500,000 visitors a year? The cash might have been mostly provided by private trusts and funds, but it demonstrates the irrelevance of such work to the majority of ordinary people.

In the likely event of a new government taking power next year that is committed to public spending cuts, the major national museums will be fine. The money, whether from charitable trusts or from government departments, will continue to flow to them. The funding - though lessening - for major work will also still be there. Rich men will still want to have gardens named after them; exhibitions of treasures stolen during imperial conquest will still need the imprimatur of the social elite. But for regional museums, for the locally funded and supported, even for university museums, the only likely impact is straitened circumstances.

Yet there's a trick being missed here. When funding cuts come, they will come first to the arts - unless the sector deploys a counter argument. In the world outside, the recession is already biting hard. And, over and above the debate about instrumental value, galleries and museums have a vital contribution to make in helping improve the lives of their neighbours, their funders (through taxation and Lottery tickets) and their audience.
This is especially true in times of recession. The impact on jobs and on the future levels of aspiration among young people is beginning to register. But the impact on the health and well-being of the average man, woman and child has barely begun to take effect. Recessions are about illness, depression and the ending of hopes, as much as they are about the economy.

Museums and galleries have a duty and an opportunity in all this. Publicly funded neutral spaces, guardians of the long-term souls of their communities - there are no better institutions to tackle the loss of hope implied by recession. And this contribution is immensely valuable in terms of dealing with the long-term impacts of recession on individuals, communities and the economy as a whole.

Arguing the case

It's time, then, to declare a wider purpose for the museum and gallery sector. At first sight, this may seem unlikely to catch the eye of the incoming government, which will be aiming for cuts first and a review of their long-term impact later. But the worst thing that culture could do now would be to withdraw into its shell, worry about its future funding and ignore the wider issues affecting society. That would achieve nothing. Worse, it would reinforce the arguments of those who see the sector as first in line when cuts to public spending are mooted. But the museum and gallery sector could offer an impressive bang for its buck if it presents its ­arguments correctly.

Projects that are to make a real difference need to learn from the mistakes of the box-­ticking era. There needs to be real, long-term engagement with communities. These cannot be one-week, one-month or six-month-long projects, where the participants are waved goodbye to at the door and never thought of again. They need to be co-created with the people involved, rather than made in a marketing office and thrown out in the general direction of a specific target "problem". And they need to be entered into with honesty and passion.

At the heart of museum community work, when done well, is actually a very Conservative philosophy - self-help. It's about giving people back control of their lives, allowing them to ­explore the issues facing them and their communities and to make the sometimes difficult choices only people on the ground can really make. Offering this sort of space, this sort of ­independent and committed involvement in developing solutions for individuals and communities, could and should be the focus of ­museum community engagement. This is about ensuring that an audience for galleries and museums survives. More than that, it's about ensuring that our cities, our economy and our cultures survive. But it's also a way of ensuring that the sector has a real role to play in helping the country to get back on its feet.

Vaughan Allen is the chief executive of Urbis

Making an entrance

According to Mark Taylor, director of the Museums Association, 1979 was a disastrous year: "There was an attempt by the Thatcher government to follow the American model - more freedom for museums, less control from above . . . it was every man for himself."

The genesis of New Labour precipitated a sea change: "They had a greater understanding of the role culture plays in all aspects of life. There was a push for museums to be part of government agendas, and it meant they could carry out a wider range of activities."

Labour also abolished entrance fees to 20 major national institutions. Visitor numbers skyrocketed and free museums have become cemented in the public's mind as an inalienable right, something an incoming Conservative government would be loath to dismantle.

Similarly, since 2003 the "Renaissance in the Regions" programme has provided almost £300m in funding for local museums, but its continuation beyond 2010 is far less certain. Taylor, however, sees the new generation of Tories as far less doctrinaire about public funding of the arts: "All indications are that the Conservatives understand the multifaceted nature of museums better than the Thatcher government."

Another good sign is that, in line with the recession, visitor numbers are booming: "As life seems more depressing, people turn to cultural pursuits, which is good news for us," says Taylor.

Stephen Morris

 

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This article first appeared in the 23 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Green Heroes and Villains

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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.