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''We've had to let six staff go this Christmas . . . people with families and mortgages''

Families all over Britain are bracing themselves for hard times. For some, they have already started

On first impressions, Rayne Precision Engineering is a neat little company. Tucked into the hills of the southern fringe of the Peak District, it consists of four solid modern sheds, built of a fake stone material that blends in with the local housing. These are arranged around a tidy yard next to a mobile hut that serves as office accommodation. The atmosphere in the yard is pleasantly quiet. There's a faint hum in the air, but none of the clashing or screeching of metal on metal that you might expect.

It quickly becomes apparent that there is a reason for this. The company's founder and managing director, Andrew Simmill, leads me into first one shed and then another to show me an array of laser-cutting and welding machinery, all of it standing idle. The signs of recent activity are all around - a scattering of little metal shavings; a neat pile of ring-shaped components bound for the automotive industry. Today the firm is having a shutdown, Simmill explains.

In the summer of 1997, Rayne Engineering, which is a few miles outside the market town of Leek, had 47 full-time staff, working five days and sometimes nights or Saturday mornings as well, making parts for JCB, GKN and a range of other engineering companies. Simmill bought a people-carrier so that his welders could drive in from Stoke-on-Trent, 20 minutes or so down the road. He had diversified, too, into making shopfitting parts for Waterstone's.

The crash, when it came, came fast. In April this year Simmill took on a salesman to try to boost a flagging order book, but to no avail. Now Rayne Precision is down to 26 staff working four days a week. There have been 12 compulsory redundancies. The remaining staff agreed to their hours being cut from 39 to 31 last week.

"Last week was my worst week," Simmill says. "We had to let six people go. You're looking people in the eye just before Christmas . . . these are people with families and mortgages. And there's nothing I can do - I've got to protect the business."

Simmill is a big, weather-beaten man in blue overalls and a sweatshirt. He looks out of place in the firm's meeting room, under the glossy banners he ordered so they could push for scarce orders at trade fairs. He looks as if he could shoulder quite a burden - and that is exactly what he is having to do now.

"Carol, who does the stores and the planning, came to me last week and said, 'I'll take redundancy, Andrew.' She's over 60. She didn't want a younger person with a family to lose their job. But she's a key part of the business. I don't mind admitting I've had sleepless nights about finding enough work for my men."

This little local heartache is solid evidence of the tectonic shift that has affected businesses across the world in recent months. The plummeting housing market, the struggling construction industry, banks cracking under the weight of bad mortgage debts and overextended credit, all lead here to this little office.

For Simmill it trickled down in part from JCB, which dominates the heavy industry in this area, previously employing 5,000 at its plants in Rocester, Uttoxeter and Cheadle. The digger manufacturer - for whom Simmill has nothing but praise - was forced to cut production by a third and to make nearly 600 staff redundant this autumn as orders, even from previously buoyant markets such as Russia, began to dry up.

In the nearby Potteries, there have been 350 job losses at Wedgwood and Spode has gone into administration, putting a further 150 at risk. The misery goes on, the figures stacking up in tens here, twenties there. On the day of my visit the front page of the Sentinel, Stoke's local paper, carried the news that Hinks Fine China, the UK's last china flower manufacturer, was to close with the loss of another 16 jobs. At Uttoxeter, Dairy Farmers of Britain announced it was closing its Fole Dairy with 250 to go. At Phones4u, another major Staffordshire company, 240 IT jobs were reported to be at risk. Simmill ("I'm 47 but I feel 67," he says, then laughs) has been here before. Twenty years ago he started an engineering business with his father during the tail end of the 1980s boom.

"Nineteen eighty-nine was an extremely good year, but 1990 . . ." he pauses for a moment. "I was financed up to the hilt. I had £70,000 debt on one machine. Then I had 12 months where my father died of cancer and my brother was killed in a road accident at 23.

People are buying cheaper cuts of meat rather than the high-end products on sale

"Everything came at once. I got married, my daughter Carly was born, and two weeks later the company went into receivership. I had finance people chasing me; my house was on the line. I was on the verge of being made bankrupt."

But Simmill doesn't give up easily. For a year he worked for the man who bought his business, then rented his machines. "It was just 12 months after I went down," he says. "The banks and accountants hadn't had any faith in me, and it was almost to prove them wrong. I'm a determined sort of fellow."

He and his wife Clare now have three daughters - Carly, 17, Sheri, 16, and Kate, 13 - and they never stop hearing about the evils of credit. "I was out shopping one time with Sheri when she was only four or five," recalls Simmill. "I ran out of cash and so I thought, 'I'll wait until next week.' She turned to me and said, 'Put it on your card, Dad.' I was really taken aback by that, and I thought about it a lot. What I'm fearful of is my children going through what I went through. There are too many credit cards, too much easily available credit. That's put us in this mess."

About 18 months ago this niggling worry turned into a family crusade. Sitting around the table outside their house one summer evening over a meal, they began drawing out a game on sheets of A4 paper. Then the girls got busy with clip art and a boardgame, Credit 4 Life, was born. Players start with £1,500 and on a throw of the dice they pay bills - mortgage £600; night out £50; credit card 30 per cent debit interest - and, if they are lucky, draw wages. The game, now in a smart box with a laminated board, has been sold to about 20 schools and is being supported by Caudwell Children, a charity funded by John Caudwell, the local Phones4u tycoon.

Simmill says he talks to his children about the problems his business is facing, and after school they often come to see him at work instead of going home. But he has no plans to bring them into the family firm. "I'm not being sexist, but I think manufacturing is a hard game," he says. "If the government doesn't believe in it there won't be any manufacturing here in ten years."

As you drive into Leek along the Ashbourne Road, the signs of economic gloom are easy to spot. A 19th-century mill stands with its glass grimed and a board outside advertises a small business within. Further into town the White Lion and Talbot pubs are both boarded up. The Leek Post and Times has a picture of Gary Clewlow of GJ's Greengrocers holding a sign saying "Closing Down (sorry)", over the headline: "Shoppers urged to stay local as credit crunch bites hard". Clewlow tells the paper he cannot compete with Aldi.

To be fair, the former textile town, which weathered the decline of the silk industry in the late 19th century and the globalisation of synthetic fabrics in the 20th, is not completely down at heel. Its market square is wide and cobbled, and a queue of shoppers is keeping its well-stocked fruit and veg stall busy. There's a half-timbered Marston's pub, the Bird in Hand, flanked by Cancer Research and Oxfam shops.

Businesses such as Simmill's are at the sharp end of the recession, and others in the area are less gloomy about the future. Off the A523 between Simmill's works at Ipstones and the town of Leek, signs point to enterprises with a more rural flavour: Beaver Hall Equestrian Centre, Middle Farm Bed and Breakfast. Down a long track, Janet Phillips runs the Threshing Barn, a small shop selling craft supplies and meat reared on the farm she runs with her husband, Dave.

Phillips says she always has a pot of coffee on the go in her shop, which is packed to the rafters with skeins of brightly coloured wool, Christmas wreaths and knitwear; it helps to make the place feel welcoming, she says. The craft workshops she runs - a launching pad for sales of equipment and materials - had their best October ever, she says. But the meat is doing less well. People are buying cheaper cuts rather than the high-end products they sell here.

"I think long-established businesses will survive, but January and February are going to be grim," says Phillips. "From December, we would usually expect big orders, and they're not coming in. I don't think people are going to go for the big items this year."

On Derby Street, a Butters John Bee estate agent stands with property details in its windows and a To Let sign above its door. At first glance the business seems to be occupied, but a closer look reveals too-neat desks with phones and notepads and nothing else, and a notice on the door confirms, "Please note: This office is now closed. We will continue to provide our services from our Hanley and Congleton offices." Just a few doors along, the Ponden Mill shop also bears a To Let sign and big banners announcing, "Twenty Per Cent Off - Everything Must Go", though an assistant says she doesn't know whether they're going to close.

Round the corner, near the now-defunct GJ's Greengrocers, is Photoprint, founded nearly 30 years ago by Brian Johnson, now the town's mayor and president of its chamber of trade and commerce. His assessment of the situation is relatively upbeat, and he attributes several of the town's business failures to a lack of initiative or staying power. Despite having spent half a million pounds on opening a horse livery last year and carrying a lot of debt ("You don't want to know," he says when I ask how much), he is investing £20,000 in a digital colour printing machine, which would have cost him £34,000 in normal times.

"You'll often hear people saying, 'Leek's always in recession - what difference does it make?'" he says. "People round here have been used to tightening their belts.

"But the new businesses have never had to face this before. They don't make allowances, they don't think ahead far enough. People will have to promote their businesses - they'll have to think positive."

Others in the town are struggling to follow his advice. Looking for the Diva shoe shop which, according to the local paper, is to close after Christmas, I stop to ask directions from a couple huddled against the cold and carrying a plastic bag of meat bones. They cheerfully offer to show me the place and as we walk along together the man, David, tells me he has been out of work for the past six months, after being laid off by a firm that makes parts for car exhausts.

"My old boss closed the doors," he says. "I'd take anything, but if you put on your CV that you were in engineering, they think you don't want a menial job. They think you'll take off as soon as something better comes - and I would as well.

"JCB has a massive effect on this area. Last year employees had a £1,000 Christmas bonus, but this year they'll be lucky if they get anything. I've given up."

He asks if I'm going for a job interview. I tell him no, I'm writing an article about the credit crunch for a magazine. "Well," he says without a trace of rancour, "at least someone's making money out of it."

Fran Abrams is the author of "Below the Breadline: Living on the Minimum Wage", published by Profile Books (£6.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

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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.

***

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.