A Hawksbill sea turtle swimming in Lady Elliot Island, Australia. Photograph: Getty Images
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A sea change

I took the wild Australian coast for granted, then I had to learn to fight.

In the 20 years since I first published my memoir Land’s Edge, I’ve stayed close to the water, living and working where desert meets sea in my native Western Australia. The littoral, that peculiar zone of overlap and influx, sustains my spirit and fuels my work. I’m still pulled between the sensual assault of the outdoors and the sedentary life of reflection. To go a day or two without seeing, feeling and smelling the ocean wouldbe as disorientating as being without a book or an hour’s privacy.

When I wrote that modest coastal memoir, I was the father of young children, eager to introduce them to the freedom and the privilege of a life at the water’s edge at the bottom of the world. It was what I knew and took for granted as a boy. Like me, my kids inherited a clean, living ocean. They enjoyed a simple, small-town existence on a wild coastline and I tried to make plain to them what a privilege that was, because it is a luxury to be able to wander free and barefoot on an empty beach, to swim with a sea lion, snorkel in a coral lagoon and catch dinner at the end of an ordinary school day. Those children are adults now. One is a parent.

This summer, I took my granddaughter into the sea for the first time. Her whole body shuddered with the strangeness of it, the surge and light and noise, the spill across her delicate skin. What a thrill it is for a sun-damaged old beachcomber to pass on such a life as a birthright. Yet only a fool could suggest that this little girl’s coastal inheritance is secure.

Sadly the world’s oceans are in peril. Ninety per cent of pelagic fishes and sharks are gone. Human beings are eating themselves out of house and home, consuming as if there was no tomorrow and not even our remote stretch of coast is immune.

Hunting and gathering are in my blood but I’ve lived to witness a diminution in the seas around me; I’ve had to boat and swim further and longer to find fish. In the 1990s, I swam across local reefs without abalone, visited submarine pinnacles without snapper, walked beaches festooned with plastic.

Australian waters had begun to feel the effects of shark-finning, drift nets, oil spills and the voracious incursions of the oil and gas industries. The emerging scientific consensus was that, globally, too many species of fish were either fully exploited or being catastrophically overexploited. You didn’t need to be any sort of boffin to know that something was wrong in our seas; every time you wore a mask and fins, the evidence was there in front of your face – more and more of less and less. It was futile blaming faceless strangers. We were all taking too much. It was time for me to act as if there was a tomorrow, as if my actions bore consequences, so I changed my ways, looking more and taking less.

Yet the fragile coast was in more trouble than the restraint of a single middle-aged man could remedy. The oceanic dead zones of Europe and Asia, the plastic gyres of the Pacific, began to haunt me. Unless whole cultures changed, these horrors would be universal; this would be our legacy. This is how I became an activist. To the battle-scarred Birkenstockers of the environmentalist movement, I was a redneck. After all, everything I knew about the sea I had learned with a spear in my hand. The actual rednecks who were my neighbours thought I’d lost my mind. If to change your mind is to lose it, perhaps they were right.

A decade after I first swam with whale sharks at Ningaloo, developers were lobbying to build a marina resort there. Australia’s longest fringing coral reef, it hugs the shore along the red desert for 200 miles. You can swim with a manta ray as a kangaroo cools its heels at the water’s edge a few yards away. There is no place in the world quite like it. Sustainable ecotourism was just finding its feet in the region, thanks to the regular presence of the enormous, gentle whale sharks. From the world over, visitors were coming to Ningaloo, not to take but to look. Dredging and blasting this habitat would have been a disaster but the resort’s backers saw golf courses in the desert, speedboats, cocktails by the pool, a sort of Costa del Sol where whale sharks were an optional extra.

As hard as it is to believe now, their plan had great support in parliament and many boosters in the media. Western Australia is a frontier state, riding boom after boom. Development is regarded as virtuous, almost messianic. To express any reservation about unfettered “pro - gress” is to declare oneself a heathen, a citizen of insufficient revolutionary zeal. With the government and media in thrall to big business, the odds of halting or even modifying a proposal such as the one at Ningaloo were remote.

Those of us who fought the defining struggle to save Ningaloo Reef didn’t expect to win but those ranges and corals were too precious to surrender without a struggle. Naively, I assumed my role would be discreet – as a supporter behind the scenes – but I was wrong.

In middle age, a privacy freak with no experience of either advocacy or politics, I was compelled to acquire a thick skin and a fresh suite of skills. I write novels for a living. In all my working life, I hadn’t collaborated with a soul; I’d never been part of a team or shared an office. I’d never submitted to any sort of discipline but my own, yet here I was, all of a sudden, pressed into service as the most visible member of a motley team made up of citizens of every age and class and political view. With little more than raw passion and a fax machine, we were trying to stop a juggernaut. Every week, there were more of us. We told our story the best we could and in time the campaign gained momentum. Once the reef caught people’s imagination, the tide turned.

For two years, I more or less gave up being a writer. I wrote only press releases, begging letters, strategic notes. I helped plan actions and stunts, met politicians and scientists, made speeches at town halls and too often found myself in front of TV cameras. I took film stars swimming with manta rays, tried to introduce the local rich to the novelty of philanthropy and posed like a prat for hundreds of photos. I made many friends and a few significant enemies.

I resented the lost time, the lazy journalists, the somnolent MPs, the silly theatre of it all, but I think of that period as a late-life education in civics. What it taught me was not always uplifting. To gain any sort of media attention, a social or environmental issue requires a circus, a celebrity or an act of violence.

We tried only the first two. And, yes, money does talk. However, once you get direct access to ordinary citizens, you discover that the victory of selfish consumerism is not yet complete. Despite the numbness and nihilism in our culture, there is still an instinct for justice and proportion, self-restraint and an abiding sense of the common good. I’m no utopian but I found that, deep down, human beings love the world that sustains them. Given honest information and a bit of respect, they will act to defend it, even for the sake of unborn strangers.

Somehow, we prevailed. In saving the reef, we rewrote the laws for coastal development. In 2011, Ningaloo was added to the World Heritage register.

Since the campaign, I have tried to return to the reclusive life I enjoyed before, but one contest seems to lead to another and I find myself enmeshed as a reluctant advocate for the marine environment. It’s a grind at times but it’s heartening to be part of a genuine sea change. This year, Australia is poised to declare a chain of marine sanctuaries from the Southern Ocean to the Coral Sea. The initiative has its detractors and scaremongers in parliament and the press but the idea has broad public support. The mood has shifted; folks have moved on.

Now and then, it’s worth being reminded of just how far a culture can shift within a generation. I think of a hole I once swam in near the Montebello Islands, to the north of Ningaloo. It’s a crater, about 1,000 feet across, left by a British atomic bomb in 1952. A strange place for a snorkel, I admit it. Not much to see down there but glassy sand and weird, white worms. Only a few years before I was born, it seemed necessary to blow islands from the sea and irradiate entire ecosystems. Apparently, the future depended on it. Today, those islands are registered sanctuaries for dugongs, whales and rare marsupials; its birds and corals are protected by law.

The shift of mindset required to achieve this was immense and sobering. It seems odd to say that a swim in a once-radioactive hole can be restorative, but when change feels too slow and the losses mount up week by week, I recall that eerie hole and how far we’ve come since it was gouged into the sea.

Tim Winton’s most recent work is the play “Signs of Life” which premiered in 2012

This article first appeared in the 07 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, 2013: the year the cuts finally bite

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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.