The brightness and the glory

A 154-foot tower, a chandelier weighing 300 kilos. Stephen Smithgains entry to the Mormon temple in

It must have been all the excitement, but as I entered the soaring new Mormon temple in Lancashire, I was distracted by an urge to perform an irredeemably earth-bound function. Under my breath, I asked a colleague whether he thought the builder's spec had included anything so worldly as a Gents. Hardly had we taken another pace across the marble flags than my elbow was seized in a firm but kindly grip. A man in a dark suit, whom I'd last noticed in a distant corner, had materialised noiselessly at my side. "I understand that you'd like to go to the bathroom," he murmured.

Paying a call at the temple, if that's the expression I want, provided a rare insight into one of Britain's fastest-growing but least understood religious movements. First, and at the risk of sounding like an Irish swimmer, I should say that I had not been taking any stimulants, because those popular diuretics, alcohol, tea and coffee, are off the Mormon menu. The cubicle itself boasted state-of-the-art Armitage Shanks vitreousware, and was carpeted in beige shagpile to ankle height, as indeed was the temple throughout. There have been rumours that these floor coverings will be ripped up and thrown out after a series of open days which finished last summer, but church authorities have dismissed this. However, they say that the temple had undergone "cleansing" - understood to be both spiritual and domestic - before its formal dedication last June.

Most impressive of all was the display of trouble-shooting by my friend in the dark suit. Having led me to the WC, he waited for me outside it, not unlike a prison escort. I'm sure that if I'd succumbed to a temptation to scribble something on the walls, he would have been through the door and snatching the Biro out of my hand before you could say Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the style the Mormons favour. Very reasonably, they didn't want people defacing their temple after they'd just spent a reported £100 million on it. Spokesmen were coy about the exact price tag, which was odd considering they went out of their way to explain that only the best raw materials had been good enough, North American cherry and Austrian crystal finding their way to the site, at junction eight of the M61. A formula I heard from more than one pair of lips was, "The key question is not what it cost, but what it's worth". Funds came from the 10 per cent of income every follower gives the Mormons.

At every doorway, on every passage, the church's investment was protected by an "elder". This was something of a misnomer; with a buzzsaw haircut and corn-fed complexion, the typical elder was actually more like a younger. Brought over from the church's American heartland for the big launch, the elders looked and sounded like Navy Seals attending a dressy reception ashore.

Thousands of visitors have been anticipated from far and wide for what you might call the Mormon experience, most of them, admittedly, converts from the United States. The nearest town is Chorley, not necessarily the sort of place you'd bracket with Beaver, or so I guessed. But the youthful elder reassured me: "Chorley's a small town, it kind of reminds me of home."

As far as the Mormons are concerned, the temple is really an outpost of nearby Preston, the base of their oldest branch. In 1837 seven missionaries arrived from New York to look up relatives in the town. Before long, they were preaching and baptising new believers in the waters of the Ribble. The Mormons now claim 180,000 members in the British Isles. They believe that theirs is the true church, restored by God in the last century. Cecil O Samuelson Jr, the president of the Mormons in Britain, made a speech about an American called Joseph Smith bearing witness to "two personages whose brightness and glory defied all description". Samuelson had the steely hair of a Republican senator. He explained that further revelations led to the discovery of gold plates inscribed with what turned out to be the text of the Book of Mormon, a kind of addendum to the Bible. Whenever I looked up from my notepad, Samuelson's eyes were on me.

He led the way through the temple's rinsed air and artificial light to a baptismal font in the basement. Twelve life-size fibreglass oxen, one for each of the tribes of Israel, were supporting a sunken whirlpool bath. The domed ceiling was a Milky Way of shimmering bulbs. Mormons maintain that baptismal privileges can be conferred beyond the grave, entire family trees united in God's sight by the act of a believer standing in for his late relations at the hygienic foot-spa. This raised the interesting textural crux: what if a dead ancestor was perfectly happy not being a Mormon? While I was pondering this, the president said that the greatest number of people for whom he had acted as a baptismal proxy at one go was a dozen. Whites were worn during the ceremony. "We have a significant laundry challenge," said Samuelson. The pool gurgled.

The president of the church is a useful man to know if you're a Mormon. Most church events happen in relatively humble chapels, and not every follower may enter the temple of Preston. Select men and women will receive a "temple recommend", a sign that they are in good standing with a member of the rank of bishop.

On a different Chorley morning, the temple not yet finished, a roly-poly man had breathlessly propelled his recommend across a table to me. He said, "That's literally priceless, that. No money on earth can buy that."

Oh, I knew how difficult it was to get into the temple, alright. I discovered it that day, when the Mormons declined to admit me and even disappointed their own PR people, who had made the journey from London. We would all have to wait for the one-off press tour.

The temple was finished in Sardinian granite, which recalled the cliff-face of the palace erected by the Ceausescus in Bucharest; it was as much of a bunker as the abandoned American embassy in Saigon. On the face of it, though, the stakes were much higher in Chorley. Inside the temple, it was possible to learn the meaning of life, or so I gathered. There was even a taster of the ambrosial hereafter.

Despite their strict admissions policy, the Mormons were far from inhospitable. They were unfailingly courteous - almost creepily so, if that doesn't sound ungrateful - putting up with any number of irreverent questions. The spire of the temple was a tapering digit thrust 154 feet into the sky, capped by a golden trumpeter representing an angel called Moroni, but the rest of the structure had the undisguisable look of a municipal crematorium. I asked the roly-poly man: "Be honest, do you really think it's beautiful?"

He said, "I do, yes. But you could show the Taj Mahal to half a dozen people and they'd all have a different view."

The temple, and the coming of the Mormons to Lancashire in large numbers, have certainly provoked different views. One shopper told me, "I think it's great, actually. It's got people talking." Another said, "It's just opulence for opulence's sake."

"You know the film Independence Day, where the spaceship suddenly appears over the White House? It's like that with the temple," said Reverend Ian Dewar, vicar of All Saints Church in the village of Appleby Bridge. The Anglican church has joined forces with the Catholics, the Baptists and others to produce a leaflet challenging the Mormons' claims to be Christian. Reverend Don Gilkes made his parish church available while the temple was holding its open days, in case disoriented members of the public needed a stiffening shot of caffeine and a chat. He told me that the Mormons' views on doctrines such as baptism and heaven were at odds with established teaching. The churches in turn have been accused of running scared, outflanked by the Mormons' remorseless doorstep proselytising (they reckon to tread 1,000 front paths for every convert they make). The Mormons deny they will be staking out the porches of Chorley. They will be training missionaries, they say, not sending them out willy-nilly into the roads around the temple - which brings me back to the guided tour.

We were in the wedding guests' waiting room, among wipe-clean lacquered panels and scenes from the life of Christ. Devoted Mormon couples don't have to settle for pledging themselves to each other "till death us do part". They can cement their marriages for eternity in a "sealing room". Here, the conversation pieces included a bench with a doily over it and mirrors facing each other, allowing the bride and groom to observe themselves for as far as they could see in each direction, a representation of their timeless union.

Now we were penetrating the inner sanctum of the temple, the very heart of the Mormon creed. In the ordinance room, nothing less than the chronology of creation was brought to life. Samuelson said, "In this room we have the opportunity of learning the things to answer life's great questions: Where did we come from? Where are we going?"

Never mind that it was an antiseptic sort of chamber; not after a build-up like that. Unfortunately, there was a let-down on the way: it emerged that our party would not be vouchsafed the mysteries of the ordinance room. We had to be content with titbits.

Still, the best was yet to come, or so we had been given to understand: the celestial room, a place of beauty, peace, reverence; an appetiser for the afterlife. "We will ask that we don't have lots of dialogue in there," said Samuelson.

What to say of the vision of paradise presented by the celestial room? Picture a reception suite for the use of minor royalty, as envisaged by the set designers of a South American soap opera. It was done out in the vivid lemons of daytime television. There was a chandelier, which weighed 300 kilos.

The Mormons have now shut their doors to the outside world, and the ineffable comforts of the celestial room are reserved for the elite of the church. I wouldn't have missed the temple for anything, even though, by the end of my visit, the soul-searching riddle "What am I doing here?" had become a rhetorical question.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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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.