Jacqui Smith: The Interview

She may be using a softer language on the big crime and security issues of the day but Britain's fir

The Home Office has turned out to be a graveyard for new Labour politicians. David Blunkett and Charles Clarke were forced out after they failed to get to grips with a dysfunctional department. Although John Reid jumped before he was pushed, he too struggled to cope with rising prison numbers and a series of crises involving escaped prisoners. His solution was to split the department in two just before announcing his resignation. Only Jack Straw, the great survivor, left with his reputation intact.

Jacqui Smith, whose appointment by Gordon Brown took everyone by surprise, has no illusions about her chances of longevity. The gallery of portraits of her predecessors outside her office has already given her pause for thought. "I have taken the trek along the corridor and looked at the whole row of home secretaries. I think it's in order to inspire you, but also to demonstrate that you are moving through," she says.

It is not Straw or Clarke that she chooses as her role model, but Blunkett, with whom she worked at the Department for Education for two years. "My first ever boss as minister was David Blunkett, and David has always brought something very special to ministerial life," she says. "I think in terms of his ability to communicate the challenges we face in government and [I] never forget that success as government is the impact we have on communities and those that serve us." She also pays tribute to Roy Jenkins, Labour home secretary during the 1960s, as a reformer. But she baulks when we ask if she would like to be seen as a "liberal" in the Jenkins tradition. "No," she says without a moment's hesitation. "I'd like to be seen as a home secretary that made a difference to people feeling secure and enabling them to get on with what they want to do in their lives."

Her politics were forged by experience in her constituency, Redditch, a Worcestershire marginal that has stayed in Labour hands through three elections thanks largely to the local MP's appeal to the values of Middle England. She has long argued that Labour must hold to the centre ground if it is to win the trust of voters in seats like her own. "I come at this very much from the point of view of someone with a marginal constituency," she says. "I have to build the broadest possible coalition within my constituency, which seems to be a microcosm of what we've managed to do as a government and will carry on doing."

This does not mean being illiberal, she says, "but being pretty tough about representing the concerns of those who elected us and making sure we deliver on them". In practical terms, this involves giving extra powers to local communities to hold local police to account. That is why she has ordered the monthly publication of local reports on how crime and antisocial behaviour are being tackled.

"You cannot continue to make the progress we've seen in reducing crime if you don't engage with people at a local level in determining what the issues are they want to see addressed and being part of the solution as well. If people feel more engaged at a local level you have a result on everything from terrorism to antisocial behaviour. People also feel more confident about the society they live in." She remains unconvinced, however, of the need for locally elected police chiefs. "Having an elected police chief is shorthand for 'we want more accountability'. Of itself, I don't think it would deliver that."

It may be tempting to see Smith as gentler than her predecessors, partly because she is a woman and partly because of the calm way she approached the failed terrorist attacks in Glasgow and London on her first weekend in the new job. But, on all the most pressing issues, she is a hardliner in the tradition of Blunkett and Reid rather than an instinctive liberal like Clarke. On extension of the 28-day period of detention without charge, on identity cards, on penal policy and on immigration, she is, if anything, more convinced about the authoritarian approach than the tough guys who came before.

Dark omens

The 28-day issue has become the first battleground for civil liberties under the Brown government. The omens are not promising. Smith says although she cannot cite an example of an existing case that would have benefited from an extension, she is certain it will be needed in the future. She believes it is responsible to have the argument now about the balance between protecting human rights and catching terrorists, rather than wait for an emergency. "I don't see it as talismanic," she says. "Am I looking for a fight on the 28 days? No. But am I looking to make sure that I can be confident that the police and those who need to investigate terrorist plots have got . . . everything they need in order to be able to do that? Yes." We ask her to clarify: is the status quo among the various options being discussed? She admits it is not. "I have been persuaded that at some time in the future . . . we will need to be in a position where, in very rare situations, we may need to go beyond 28 days."

On ID cards, she is even more dogmatic. Although the Brown government has initiated reviews of policy on casinos, cannabis and 24-hour drinking, there is no turning back on this. Some had wondered - it now turns out to be wishful thinking - if Brown, during his hesitant first Prime Minister's Questions, had been bounced into restating the government's commitment to ID cards. The hope was that he didn't mean it, that ministers might eventually shelve the scheme in the face of protests or rising costs.

Not a bit of it, says Smith. "You do need a system which has at its heart the ability, at a national level, to tie people's identity to a record of who they are." It has been suggested that it would be possible to have an identity database, but no physical card. On this point, Smith, again, is crystal clear. "There will be an ID card," she says. "From 2009 we will be introducing ID cards for UK citizens. From 2008 we will introduce what will effectively be an ID card for those who have been in the UK for more than six months."

Nor will liberals find comfort in Smith's approach to criminal justice policy. Despite record prison numbers and increasing disquiet over indeterminate sentences, "Putting more people in prison is not an end in itself, but it might be part of the solution to reducing overall levels of crime." We put to her Clarke's concerns about prison numbers. "He was right to be bothered, because the number of people you put in prison is a representation of the amount of crime you've got . . . but you can be bothered without then arguing that you should fundamentally change the nature of your sentencing, or that you should reject as wrong a decision you took previously on indeterminate sentencing."

Much has been made of Smith's calm approach to the failed terrorist attacks at Glasgow Airport and outside a London nightclub. We wonder whether she had deliberately avoided the emotive language of the "war on terror", concentrating on the criminal nature of terrorism. "It is a conscious approach," she says, "and it's a conscious approach that stems from the need to enlist the broadest possible coalition in order to tackle terrorism . . . So, yes, it's tone, but the tone is fundamentally linked to the approach you need to take to counter terror."

Asked what she thinks of the specific phrase "war on terror", she is again frank: "It is not one that I used. It seems to me that what we should be doing is emphasising the values that we share which are under attack from terrorism, rather than trying to create a battle or war between those who oppose the terror and those who want to carry it out."

Smith is a fierce advocate of Brown's "hearts and minds" approach to tackling the radicalisation of young Muslims. She also believes that Muslim communities have not been best served by their leaders. She backs moves, put in place by Ruth Kelly when she was communities secretary, to broaden the kinds of groups with which the government engages and cut out, for example, the Muslim Council of Britain. "We've got to make serious attempts to go beyond those who have previously been seen as leaders of the community. She was absolutely right to do that. We have seen, in the immediate aftermath of the Glasgow and London bombings, that the response from leaders of the community was better because of the action previously taken."

Jacqui Smith: the CV

l3 November 1962 Born in Malvern, Worcestershire, daughter of two teachers

1979 Joins Labour after local Tory MP, Sir Michael Spicer, speaks at her school

1981-84 Studies PPE at Hertford College, Oxford. Runs unsuccessfully for president of student union before being elected chair of National Association of Labour Students

1986 Starts career as an economics teacher

1997 Elected Labour MP for Redditch as "Blair babe"

2003 After stint as one of youngest ministers in DoH, is appointed deputy minister for women and equality, driving civil partnerships legislation

2005 As minister of state for schools, funds Lesbian and Gay History Month

May 2006 Joins cabinet as chief whip in Blair's fraught last reshuffle

January 2007 Brands Celebrity Big Brother producers "shameful" in racism row

28 June 2007 Selected by Gordon Brown as first female home secretary and second youngest since Winston Churchill

29 June 2007 Survives baptism of fire with failed car bombings in London and Glasgow

July 2007 Dubbed "Jacqui Spliff" after admitting to experimenting with cannabis at university

Research by Matthew Holehouse

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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.”

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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.