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What’s yours is mine

The scramble for the world’s resources has barely abated with the recession, and our ecological debt

The elephant is still standing, and still dead. Around its feet are hundreds of coins thrown by visitors. Room after room at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, on the outskirts of Brussels, is full of stuffed animals perched rigidly against crude backdrops of African forest and grassland. Another exhibit surveys Africa's economic contribution to the world: maps on the wall dissect and label each country, tagging them like the pickled fish and stuffed apes.

This is Africa as a cornucopia of natural wealth to be mined, harvested, picked, squeezed and taken. The maps reduce the continent in general, and Congo in particular, to a series of carefully plotted locations for the extraction of oil, cotton, coffee, sugar, rice, maize, diamonds, jute, cobalt, tin, copper and gold. One term for it is the "resource curse", exemplified by King Leopold II's brutal Central African reign during the first scramble for Africa in the 19th century. Leopold still sits proudly in the central courtyard of the museum, chin imperially upturned: a statue in honour of international relations built on murder, theft and deception.

Is his presence shocking because things are so different today, or because there remain dark continuities? A new report from Nef (the New Economics Foundation) reveals that humanity, driven by European-style consumption patterns, went into "ecological debt" on 25 September. It is based on the "ecological footprint" measure, which adds up all the natural resources we consume and the waste we generate, and compares them with what ecosystems can produce and absorb. As with financial planning, spend more than you earn and, before the year is out, you go into debt. The earlier it happens, the worse things are. This year, "ecological debt day" fell a day later than last year, but still two weeks earlier than the year before that. It has been shifting earlier since first going into the red in the mid-1980s. Strikingly, it suggests that global overconsumption has barely been affected by the recession.

No rich country can support its lifestyle without huge imports of resources. Now we are racking up these ecological debts in a way that looks a lot like a new scramble for Africa. Since 2006, for example, large-scale transnational land acquisitions and leases - so-called "land-grabs" - have laid claim to almost 20 million hectares of farmland in developing countries (an area equivalent in size to all the farmland in France) to grow food and biofuels for consumers in wealthy nations. Countries caught up in the current wave include Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Madagascar, Mali, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia and Cameroon - all of which are poor and troubled in various ways.

Many of the land acquisitions were triggered by the spikes in food and fuel prices in 2008, when wealthy people suddenly became aware of how vulnerable global markets had become. As a result, direct ownership of resources came to look more attractive than depending on the casino of the commodity markets.

Oil and overconsumption

More than half of the money flowing into Africa as foreign investment (from the United States, Europe and the increasingly competitive China and India) goes straight to the oil sector, according to the UN's World Investment Report. The US is expected to get a quarter of its crude oil imports from West Africa by 2015.

As Europe (and even, falteringly, the UK) recovers from recession, a return to debt-fuelled overconsumption is imminent. And it is energy that fuels it. The UK's relative dependence on imported energy has risen fivefold since the country lost self-sufficiency in 2004. We are less self-sufficient in food now than we were 40 years ago. And because we do not have to pay the full environmental cost of fuel, we engage in bizarre forms of "boomerang trade". The UK imports 5,000 tonnes of toilet paper from Germany, and then exports almost 4,000 tonnes back again. We export 4,400 tonnes of ice cream to Italy, only to import 4,200 tonnes. There are many similar examples of this crazy business.

Today, all respectable European powers must profess commitment to global poverty reduction and sustainable development. But Europe is still hungry for Africa's resources and, for all its sophistication, it is less energy-efficient today at delivering a given level of "life satisfaction" than it was four decades ago. Others are paying the price for our materialism.

Projections for the impact of consumption-driven climate change show potentially catastrophic impacts over the coming decades on Africa - a continent that has made a negligible contribution to the problem. These coincide with the rapacious international exploitation of Congo's tropical forests.

Expected deforestation up to the year 2050 - feeding the demand for wood floors, garden furniture and ministerial front doors - will have the effect of releasing more than 34 billion tonnes of CO2, somewhere close to the UK's entire emissions over the course of 60 years. Overall, up to a quarter of greenhouse-gas emissions are thought to come from clearing tropical forests. When the World Bank began lending, post-conflict, to the DRC in 2001, 107 new contracts to log 15 million hectares of forest in total were signed in just four years. But the benefits that were promised to local people from the trade have failed to materialise, and tax avoidance and timber smuggling are reportedly rife.

In late 2008, the DRC again stood on the edge of full-scale conflict and calamity. It is estimated that even before then, in the decade from 1998, 5.4 million people died from war-related causes in the Congo. The continent is still seen as a lucky dip of natural resources - be those oil, wood, diamonds or minerals - with little concern for the consequences.

Leopold's legacy

I visited the museum in Tervuren to understand better an "official" version of the events by which Europe and Africa emerged with such different fortunes, after two and a half centuries of rapid global economic expansion and huge divergence between rich and poor. Such unequal development has been paid for, in large part, by the creation of an enormous ecological or carbon debt, which has taken the form of global climatic upheaval. We are left in a world that is divided, volatile and living beyond its environmental means.

In 1972, Sicco Mansholt, then president of the European Commission, asked if Europe would "continue to produce 'bigger, faster and more' for some to the detriment of the global environment and the welfare of the rest". As long as Leopold II's statue stands in the heart of Europe, the answer is probably yes.

Andrew Simms is policy director and head of the climate change programme at Nef (the New Economics Foundation). He is the author of "Ecological Debt: Global Warming and the Wealth of Nations", published by Pluto (£13.99)

 

Behind Conrad's Heart of Darkness

Leopold II of Belgium fixed his sights on Africa from the start of his reign in 1865. In 1878 he employed the English explorer Henry Morton Stanley to buy up 100,000 square kilometres of the Congo Basin. By 1885 he had expanded his fiefdom to 2.3 million square kilometres: the "Congo Free State" was formed.

As sovereign, the king established the Force Publique, an army of Congolese conscripts commanded by European officers. Under the pretence of protecting his African subordinates from Arab traders, Leopold created what was, in effect, a huge labour camp.Employment laws allowed workers to be indentured for up to seven years, and enforced daily quotas of rubber and ivory. Punishments for failing to meet these were brutal - beatings, rape and the amputation of hands, as well as killings, were common.

The invention of the rubber tyre in 1891 made the rubber trade even more lucrative. However, the regime's brutality was attracting international attention. In 1904, Roger Casement published a report on Congolese genocide - the death toll had run into millions - forcing Belgium to commission an inquiry. The Belgian government annexed the colony in 1908 and declared the Belgian Congo. In disgrace, the king attempted to cover up his crimes by burning archives. When he died a year later, booing crowds followed his coffin through the streets.

Stephanie Hegarty

This article first appeared in the 19 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Strange Death of Labour England

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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.