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Backtrack or derail

A pledge to renationalise the railways would be a clear vote-winner. So why do passengers’ demands f

Public ownership is a puzzle. Voters are in favour of it, but our three main parties offer little to its supporters in terms of viable policy options. Instead, they remain wedded to a pro-privatisation agenda, trying to outdo each other in making lists of what public assets to sell off next.

In the past two years, the government has nationalised Northern Rock, and has taken large stakes in leading banks. Privatisation has never been so unpopular. But the gap between public opinion and the position taken by our politicians is at its greatest in the case of the railways.

Rushed through by John Major's government, privatisation has left us with fragmented and user-unfriendly railways, requiring around four times the public subsidy received by British Rail. Despite the vast amounts of taxpayers' money that have been handed over to private train operators (for example, Virgin Trains received £294.6m this year for running the West Coast Main Line franchise), our railways are easily the most expensive in Europe, with fares 3.4 times the global average.

Research by the investment bank UBS showed that while a 125-mile, second-class train journey in Britain costs £54.39, it costs just £18.94 in Italy, a country with a similar average income. Since privatisation in 1996, fares for long-distance trips have soared by up to three times inflation. This year alone, fares rose by an average of 6 per cent, with services such as CrossCountry hiking prices by 11 per cent.

Add to the equation that rush-hour trains are often overcrowded, owing to the inadequate number of carriages (another result of privatisation that set up rolling stock companies), and it is not surprising that 70 per cent of the public back the renationalisation of the railways. But their calls are falling on deaf ears. The Tories want "longer, better franchises" for the train operators. They also want Network Rail, the not-for-profit, quasi-public body set up by Labour in the aftermath of the collapse of Railtrack, to lose its monopoly on engineering work. The Liberal Democrats pledged renationalisation in their 2005 election manifesto but the policy has now been dropped, to the consternation of party activists and some MPs. "Where is it written that we have to abandon good ideas simply because Labour and the Tories have abandoned them, too?" Lembit Öpik asked at this year's party conference, where several pleas for taking the railways back into public ownership were rejected by the party.

Labour's stance is perhaps the most baffling of all. Here is a party that is down in the polls, and in desperate need of vote-winning policies. Labour opposed the sell-off of British Rail when in opposition, with Tony Blair promising a "publicly owned, publicly accountable railway". Yet in government it has happily accepted the privatised system.

Loco motives

What would Labour lose by reverting to its earlier stance and committing to full-scale renationalisation? The answer is nothing. The government's inaction can be traced to the man at the top. "The trouble is that Gordon actually believes all this neoliberal dogma about the benefits of privatisation," a former Labour MP told me earlier this year.

Brown's speech at this year's Labour party conference, in which he attacked "right-wing fundamentalism that says you just leave everything to the market", seemed to signal a move away from New Labourism to a more social-democratic agenda. But the Prime Minister showed his true, pro-privatisation colours when, shortly afterwards, he announced a fire-sale of publicly owned assets - including the Tote bookmakers, the Channel Tunnel rail link and the Royal Mint.

We should not forget the crucial role that Brown played in aiding and abetting the Tory sell-off in the 1990s. In Broken Rails: How Privatisation Wrecked Britain's Railways, Christian Wolmar describes how, in the spring of 1996, the shadow chancellor vetoed his party's plan to scupper the forthcoming privatisation of Railtrack by announcing that, on coming to power, they would replace its shares with preference shares. Labour's initiative was "a genuine opportunity to undermine the [privatisation] process fatally". But thanks to Brown's intervention, the knock-out blow was never delivered.

Opponents of renationalisation say that bringing back British Rail would cost the government too much money. But they ignore the fact that we are in a recession and many franchises are in serious trouble. This year, we have already seen the government renationalise the east coast rail service after NXEC, a subsidiary of the troubled transport company National Express, tried to get its contract renegotiated. Eight of the 19 franchises expire in or before 2013, which means that at most only 11 would have to be bought out by the government - that's assuming no others default, as in the case of NXEC. Renationalising in this way, and setting 2013 as the date for the establishment of a fully publicly owned network, would not only reduce the costs of the process, but expose the hypocrisy of the free-market critics of public ownership, who would be left arguing for continued taxpayer subsidies for a privately owned railway.

A golden age

Renationalisation could, and should, usher in a new golden age for Britain's railways. For that to happen, we need to acknowledge that railways are a public service and not judge them on how much revenue they generate. That means returning to the spirit of Barbara Castle's 1968 Transport Act, which relieved the railways of what Wolmar describes as "the impossible target" of breaking even or making a profit.

It means reintroducing distance-based pricing and scrapping today's market-based pricing, which has led to extortionate fares - such as Virgin's £247 "anytime" return from London to Manchester, or the first fare costing over £1,000 (from Cornwall to Scotland). It means reducing ticket prices to the European average, with 50 per cent reductions of fares at weekends, enabling Britons to travel across the country cheaply. And it also, of course, means more trains.

Nationalisation would have a positive social and environmental impact, and it would also have a wider political significance. It would be a clear sign that the era of neoliberal extremism ushered in by the Thatcher government in 1979 is finally at an end. The sell-off of the railways was the most
extreme of all the Conservative privatisations. No other country in western Europe was foolish enough to follow Britain's example - even in "free market" Switzerland, the railways are publicly owned. If we are serious about constructing a society where the needs of people come before capital, renationalisation of the railways would be a perfect place to start.

Neil Clark is a co-founder of the Campaign for Public Ownership

A tale of two commuters

A comparison of the experiences of two commuters exposes the differences in service in Britain and abroad. Matthew Clark travels to work in London each day from his home in Arundel (a journey of 58 miles each way) on trains run by private operator Southern. He pays £3,280 for his season ticket; an "anytime" return for the journey costs £42.

“The price is outrageous. I get a seat because I get on at the start of the journey, but people who get on at Crawley have to stand." What about punctuality? "If I was hypercritical, I'd say that often trains are a few minutes late, but it's not that bad. Once, though, I left Arundel at 6.06am and only got into London at 1.30pm - two trains broke down. It was a disaster."

In Belgium, Andy Assez commutes from Leuven to Brussels (17 miles each way), on the state-owned National Railway Company of Belgium. "I have a season ticket, which my employer pays for. A non-discounted season ticket for the journey costs €991." (£889. A return is €9.60.) “I almost always get a seat, even at peak hours. There are a lot of people who are going in the direction of Brussels, but there are also a lot of trains (around six per hour). Most of the time, I can't really complain about the services on the train." And punctuality? "The train is usually not more than five minutes late, but exceptionally it can be more than 15 minutes delayed."

Neil Clark

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End

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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.