Sony's Walkman first freed Londoners to travel in a private sound world. Photograph: Contrasto/Eyevine
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Tunnel visions: Krautrock on the Underground

Paul Morley recalls 1979, and travelling on the London Underground with his first ever Walkman, listening to the other-worldly sound of Can.

In 1979, my girlfriend, Karen, brought me a present from Japan, where she had been working. It was a Sony Walkman, able to play, but not record on, cassettes, in stereo, with relatively decent sound quality. It was a little smaller than a paperback book, so therefore not much bigger than a cassette, which seemed some sort of miracle – that the workings required to power the machine and produce the sound could be incorporated into such a compact casing.

Perhaps the most significant thing, along with the removal of an internal loudspeaker, was the 50-gram, or 1.7-ounce, weight of the headphones, which were in scale with the player itself, replacing the usual eighttimes ‑as‑heavy, bulbous, ear-covering headphones. You could now take music with you wherever you went, and somehow, at the time, even though there were machines that could have done this job, and there had been tiny transistor radios for years, this seemed incredibly exciting. Not least because you couldn’t take a radio on the Tube, if you wanted to, because there would be no signal.

Not only did I consider myself the first person to own the fabulously cool new Walkman, but I also imagined that I was the first person to sit on the Tube listening to music of my own choosing. I can’t remember what the very first cassette was that I played on the Bakerloo Line, but thinking about where I was and where the music I mostly listened to was in the late 1970s, I can take a very good guess. It could have been something released in 1979 that was already not only my favourite album of the year but of all time, because this was – if you were approaching music from the point of view of someone my age, with my interests, my levels of anxiety and ardour and with my job on the New Musical Express – a year of considerable transition and purfication. Elsewhere, and perhaps this new music abstractly, nervously diagnosed this, the once-promising countercultural energy of the 1960s had dissipated, and a conservative countercultural revolution was looming, leading to the emergence, along the tracks, around the corner, through the next tunnel, of the controlling, fanatically moralistic New Right of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

This keyed-up, highly charged pre-digital new music also anticipated a world that was about to be cut into gleaming pieces by technology, television, ideology, assisted by its fancy pleasure-seeking slave, the music video, which, what with one thing and another through roaring tunnels that stretched back to the invention of the telephone and forward to the introduction of the Sony Walkman, eventually led to the all-change free-for-all of Facebook and Twitter.

In 1979 – before this post-internet vortex of pressure and pleasure – certain currents and principles had made the disruptive, avant-garde end of rock music particularly engaging. There was still an almost chaste belief in progress, a natural craving for a violent renewal of meanings, and a treatment of influences that was midway between the reverential and the murderous. It was a culmination, rearrangement, refinement of experimental ideas, sounds and principles instigated by punk.

This music was labelled, possibly first of all by me, in the NME (perhaps thought up while daydreaming on the Bakerloo Line stuck outside Oxford Circus), “post-punk”. This name, another slice of convenient collective identification, introduced to diagnose, even conceive, an apparently important cultural movement, slid into general use quite nicely, but didn’t come close to expressing the concern this music and these musicians, often haunted by dread, had with spatial and rhythmic, temporal and geographical displacement, with plotting the physical universe and the individual’s place in it. In some ways they were producing in advance a soundtrack to the disorientating, paradoxically lonely effect of constant contact with the internet.

This 1979 music, not heard much on Radio 1 outside of the John Peel show, where it starred, music which followed on quite naturally from music the year before and would logically move into the 1980s, losing some of its momentum once compact discs arrived, included: Unknown Pleasures by Joy Division, Entertainment! by Gang of Four, Metal Box by Public Image Limited, The Raincoats by the Raincoats, 154 by Wire, Lodger by David Bowie, Reproduction by the Human League, Drums and Wires by XTC, Cut by the Slits, New Picnic Time by Pere Ubu, A Trip to Marineville by Swell Maps, Dragnet and Live at the Witch Trials by the Fall, Fear of Music by Talking Heads, Half Machine Lip Moves by Chrome, Eskimo by the Residents, The B-52’s by the B-52’s, Y by the Pop Group, 20 Jazz Funk Greats by Throbbing Gristle, This Heat by This Heat, Solid State Survivor by Yellow Magic Orchestra, pragVEC by pragVEC, Join Hands by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Mix-Up by Cabaret Voltaire.

I would not be listening on purpose to Rod Stewart, the Eagles, Styx or Foreigner, because they seemed blasé and instantly antique, working on behalf of a mega-corporate entertainment state, with no statements to make about the future. I kept my distance from the Jam, if only because rumour had it one of them voted Tory, and they dressed as though they all did, as if punk were routine show business, a mere day job. Although I would have been paying constant close attention to Neil Young and Bob Dylan, who released Rust Never Sleeps and Slow Train Coming that year, these don’t seem likely candidates for that first Walkman trip. I would have been instinctively drawn to something that belonged on this pioneering new machine that had the capacity to turn an everyday journey on the Bakerloo into an explicit plunge down the rabbit hole or tumble through the looking glass.

Other music that it could have been, the music from the past I tended to play the most at that time: all albums by the Velvet Underground, the spaced-out, splintered Englishness of pre-Dark Side of the Moon Pink Floyd, the telepathic, serenely abstracted post-rock jazz of Miles Davis’s On the Corner, In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, most Hendrix, Robert Wyatt, Stooges, Joni Mitchell, John Martyn and even (in a spirit of a nerdy need for otherness, or a need to know something other than what the outside world gave and told me) the new forms, and related protean formlessness, of Tony Conrad and Faust, La Monte Young and Karlheinz Stockhausen – whose sparse, spectral 1956 electronic composition Gesang der Jünglinge, incorporating synthesised and natural voices, sounded like music emerging in the dead of night from Tube tunnels that connected the Bakerloo Line with underground cave cities on Jupiter.

All this music that I could have played for the very first time underground on my Walkman, whether right there from 1979 or from earlier, was sound that would have directly or indirectly influenced or been directly or indirectly influenced by a group formed in Germany in 1968 called Can.

Can were less a rock group than a compact orchestra, a jazz collective, a cartel of dreamers, a loose affiliation of individuals, a battery of technicians, a faction of dissidents, a circle of minds, a square of mystics, a haze of weed, an ambush of gurus, a buccaneer of savants, a warp of collaborators, a cabal of freaks, a body of procedures, a lightness of heads, an education of vagabonds.

“Krautrock” was the convenient collective name given in a slightly jokey, slightly wary and affectionately patronising way to an eclectic collection of radicalised German groups from very different parts of the country that contained musicians who were born in the few years before, during or just after the Second World War. Another collective name for these groups, still frivolous but more descriptive of their mission to create sound never heard before on our planet and invent music that could make you feel you were leaving the earth behind, was “kosmische”. As well as Can, these groups included Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Amon Düül II, Cluster, Popol Vuh, Harmonia, Neu! and Faust, and they were looking for ways to repair their traumatic recent history, remove the crippling infection of fascism, break free of totalitarian artistic repression, negotiate turbulent social and emotional currents, and radically, romantically reinstate the positive, progressive elements of their mortified national psyche.

Also linking them, perhaps, was the spectre, the awareness, the modulated, post-linear cosmos of Stockhausen, a notorious, internationally known techno-shaman from within their corrupted land who emerged from deeper inside the grim Nazi shadow (he was 17 when the war ended) with a clear, spiritualised vision – an act of revenge – of how to break free of the poisoned past and dream up the future and a new sort of other-worldly national sensibility.

From Kraftwerk, Can, Neu! and Faust – speculative, observational artists creating their work in a recording studio with what could be called a post-impressionist, even cubist approach – came a way of manipulating, treating and structuring sound, establishing rhythm, heightening dramatic effect and capturing experience that significantly extended the structural and sonic possibilities of all forms of pop and rock music, from the commercial to the extreme.

These new German musicians were to some extent making a new classical music following on from savage, edited musique concrète and tonally opulent, romantically influenced minimalism, experimenting with tape-recording techniques and multi-track recording that prefigured sampling and remixing, but hearing provocative ideas at the more experimental end of rock and the more electronic end of pop; this led to them placing a repetitive groove resembling a funk groove, a psychedelic rock groove, even a compelling disco groove, inside lengthy abstract compositions that seemed to be pondering the shape of the solar system, the colour of orgasm and the density of experience. Pinning a consoling, pleasing, almost jocular rhythm within epochal, Stockhauseninspired pools and patterns of sound and noise rotating past each other with random, tingling electro-acoustic precision meant that, in 1976, before all that 1979 post-punk commotion which connected a lot of the dots Can helped scatter into the universe, Can had a minor hit. They crept on to Top of the Pops miming to the Dalí disco of “I Want More” as an unholy one-hit wonder, prophets dressed as tramps, treated as curios, spooks out of their skulls possibly needing to be exorcised by nervous non-believers before they caused a change in human behaviour. This was my kind of pop group.

This is an edited extract from Paul Morley’s “Earthbound” (Particular Books, £4.99), part of the new Penguin Lines series, inspired by the 150th anniversary of the London Underground

This article first appeared in the 11 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The audacity of popes

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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.