Bangladesh: Give me back my country

When Tahmima Anam went home to Dhaka to cast her vote in the now-postponed election, she found a nat

On 10 January 1972, my father came home to his country for the first time. It was three weeks after the end of the Bangladesh war, and he was making his way back from India, where he had enlisted with the newly formed Bangladesh army. When I think about that day, I always wonder what country my father thought he was returning to. Surely it was a thing of his imagination, born out of the years marching against the Pakistani occupation, the months touring India to gain support for the war, the gruelling training at the officers' camp in West Bengal. I can picture the shock that he and his fellow freedom fighters must have felt when they finally did cross that border, seeing their imagined country and their real country meet for the first time.

The Bengali phrase desh-prem means "love for the country". Like many expatriate Bangladeshis, my desh-prem makes me believe there will come a day when I pack my bags and leave London for good. My desh-prem is a long-distance affair, full of passion and misunderstanding; often, my heart is broken. Many Bangladeshis never actually return home; it is more of an idea, something to turn over in our hearts before we go to sleep, but for me the prospect of returning is real. In 1990, after 14 years abroad, my parents left their jobs with the United Nations and moved back to Bangladesh. So many of their friends told them they were foolish to return to a country that had so little to offer, but in the latter months of that year, Hossain Mohammad Ershad's military dictatorship was toppled by massive public action of a kind not seen since the days of the independence movement. So the country my family returned to was bathed in hope, and, almost two decades after the birth of Bangladesh, we finally seemed on the brink of becoming a functioning democracy.

Sixteen years after Ershad's dramatic fall, Bangladesh is a very different place. We have had three national elections, and our two main political parties, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Awami League, have handed power back and forth to each other like a baton in a relay, each election becoming successively more bitter, and each five-year term bringing dramatic increases in corruption and partisan politics. Amazingly, when the Awami League was in power, the BNP refused to attend parliament; when the BNP was in power, the Awami League refused to attend. As a result, the people we mandated to represent us in government failed to discharge their responsibilities, instead taking to the streets and announcing that their defeat was engineered and not willed by the voting public.

In Bangladesh, elections come hand in hand with claims of vote-rigging. Where there is an election and a transfer of power, there will inevitably be rumours of conspiracy, of stolen ballot boxes and hijacked polling stations. Whether and to what degree these rumours are true is almost less important than the assumption that a sitting government cannot hold a fair election. Therefore, in 1995, the constitution was amended to include a peculiar and rather clever system of handing power to a caretaker government that is responsible for holding a fair election. According to the constitution, the last retired chief justice of the Bangladesh Supreme Court becomes chief adviser to the caretaker government. He has the authority of a prime minister, and is given the responsibility of appointing a cabinet, together with which he will govern the country for no more than 90 days. During this time his main tasks will be to oversee fair and non-partisan elections and to hand over power to the newly elected government.

So far, so good. But as plans go, this one is not foolproof. Although the arrangement worked on the first two occasions, this time around the BNP felt it could not afford to lose the election. All the signs indicated that if the election was free and fair, the BNP would be defeated by the Awami League. After five years of alleged corruption, theft and autocracy, it was faced with the possibility that it would actually have to be accountable for the crimes it had committed during its tenure. The excesses of previous regimes were mild compared with those perpetrated during those five years, which saw an alliance between the BNP and the most powerful of the Islamic parties, the Jamaat-e-Islami. The BNP formed this strategic partnership in 2001, and over the past five years the Jamaat's influence has spread throughout the bureaucracy and district governments, enabling the party to build grass-roots support and gain crucial political and public recognition.

As well as giving power and legitimacy to the Islamic right, the BNP alliance committed severe abuses of power. It politicised the police force and formed the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), a special branch that was responsible for hundreds of killings in the name of "law and order". This force signed contracts for bridges that were never built, bought television channels, appointed biased judges, jailed and harassed the opposition, and placed RAB people into every post that might influence the election. The alliance invented 14 million false voters. By the same stroke, it wiped most Bangladeshis from a religious or ethnic minority from the electoral register.

Popular opposition to the BNP's blatant attempts at manipulating the election has made it terrified of losing power, and so, instead of allowing the caretaker government to fall into the hands of a neutral chief adviser, it encouraged the BNP-appointed president, Iajuddin Ahmed, to take the post. When we first saw the ageing Iajuddin taking the oath to become chief adviser, he appeared harmless enough. People, including the opposition, decided to give him a chance to show his neutrality - his desh-prem. But he proved to be easily manipulated, and after a few weeks he became a hated figure.

In the meantime, the beleaguered Awami League has committed its fair share of mistakes. In order to press its demands it called an indefinite series of strikes, bringing the economy to a halt while it conducted its campaigns of civil disobedience. No one went to work; the classrooms emptied out, the ships were marooned at Chittagong port, and the price of dhal tripled in a matter of months. But by far the most un forgivable blunder it committed was to sign a deal with the far-right Khilafat-e-Majlish. The Awami League has long claimed an ideological advantage over the BNP, branding itself the more secular, progressive party, so for those of us who believed there was a significant difference between the two parties, this was a cynical and heartbreaking manoeuvre. Under the terms of the deal, the Awami League will assist the Khilafat-e-Majlish in legalising fatwas and challenging any laws that contradict "Koranic values". Whether the Islamic right will really gain a foothold in mainstream politics - and the hearts of the public - in Bangladesh remains to be seen; however, that both parties believe they cannot win an election without the endorsement of the right is sign enough that Bangladesh's identity as a moderate Muslim country is under threat.

When I landed in Dhaka a few days ago, the city looked as it so often does in January. The fog was low and woolly on the ground; people were huddled under their shawls; the smell of oranges and roasted peanuts lingered in the air. But, of course, I knew that all was not as it seemed. In these past few months my desh-prem has been under siege, and this time, I arrived in Dhaka in bitter spirits. I had planned this trip so that I would be able to vote; I had spent months looking forward to returning to Bangladesh to exercise my democratic right. Yet as the day drew near, I realised I wouldn't be going home to vote, but rather to witness a sham election. With the Awami League boycotting the elections, and talk of a constitutional crisis, we all began to worry that this year could mark the death of democracy in Bangladesh. The mood was sombre and people seemed resigned; it appeared there was nothing anyone could do to prevent this political charade from going ahead.

But then, just as it appeared there was no solution in sight, the president suddenly declared a state of emergency and postponed the elections indefinitely. He resigned as chief adviser and dissolved the caretaker cabinet. The exact reasons for his about-face are still opaque, but we do know that it happened through a combination of international pressure and army intervention. To what degree the army is now running things is unclear; vague and ominous ordinances have been proposed, some of which hint at restrictions on personal freedom and on the media.

Walter Benjamin famously said that a state of emergency is also always a state of emergence. Can we take this literally in Bangladesh? Will the emergency see us through to a fair election, or will the army consolidate its power and wrest democracy from us indefinitely? And what would happen to my desh-prem then? Could it survive another onslaught?

Whenever I imagine returning to Bangladesh for good, I wonder what kind of country I want to return to. I want, more than anything, to have that feeling of protean possibility that my father must have had when he crossed the border into his new country. I want a country where my gender does not preclude me from being an equal citizen. Where corruption has not touched every facet of public life. Where the children don't sell popcorn on street corners or work in matchstick factories. I want to know that I'm going to show up on polling day and see my name on the voter registration list. I want to stand in a queue, press my thumb into a pad of ink, and put my mark wherever I like. I want my politicians to stop courting the Islamic right. I want the water table to stop rising. I want the government to stop driving the Hindus and the Chakmas and the Santals out of this country. I want someone to count my vote. I want a halt to the steady erosion of civil liberties. I want a country where the army cannot arrest anyone without a warrant. I want our political parties to be democratic, transparent and accountable. I want fair and neutral judges. I want the right to vote. I want there to be no such thing as a legal fatwa. I want the war criminals of the 1971 genocide to be tried, condemned and jailed. I want to vote. I want a country worthy of my desh-prem. I want a country.

Tahmima Anam's debut novel, "A Golden Age", set during the 1971 Bangladesh war of independence, will be published in March by John Murray (£14.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 January 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sex and politics

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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.