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Profile: Joss Garman

Joss Garman joined the environmental movement at 14. He has since been arrested over 20 times and wa

Early years

Born in 1985 in Mid-Wales, Joss Garman was one of four boys. His parents work in the emergency services equipment industry and his father is the inventor of the world’s first bath lift. With parents who are nature lovers, as well as members of Greenpeace it seemed only logical that Garman would cultivate a passion for the great outdoors. “I was surrounded by beauty and wildlife,” Garman told newstatesman.com. “I was really into Gerald Durrell books and I had my own menagerie with snakes and spiders.”

“But I guess my political awakening came when I was 14 years old. I read an article by the curator of Entomology at Oxford, George McGavin, about a beetle species. He basically argued that if a handful of these beetles were destroyed it could damage a whole ecosystem.” Moved, the young teenager set about finding ways in which he could help the environment around him. He wrote to Greenpeace to ask if he could volunteer for them. On discovering that there was no local branch of the organization in his area, Garman took on the task of setting one up.

Before attending Hereford Sixth Form College he was at the local comprehensive, something Garman is keen to get on the record as he says many paint him as an ex-public school boy. It was while at the college that he became involved in direct action.

Activism

He spent his sixth form years running the branch of Greenpeace he set up and standing outside supermarkets with the CND, campaigning against the Wylfa power station, as well as handing out leaflets against GM crops.

It was at 16 that Garman was first arrested. He had broken into Fairford US air base in order, according to some sources, to damage American bombers heading for the war in Iraq. Garman’s parents were members of Greenpeace and while they had not been activists being supportive of their son came easily, despite the many arrests that were to follow. “I was always slightly nervous obviously but I was definitely prepared to do it.”

Another protest against the Iraq war was an organised day of civil disobedience. “I organised a mass walkout at our school and all surrounding schools in Hereford joined in.” Not much later Garman found himself in the back of a police van in 2004, after he was caught getting onto a runway at USAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. At this time Garman was volunteering with Trident Ploughshares, a part of the international nuclear disarmament movement. A number of volunteers were attempting to stop bombers going off to Iraq. All charges against the 17 year old Garman later dropped.

What of other campaigns? “As a campaign of mass education, it would be difficult to think of Make Poverty History as anything other than very successful. It got newspapers from The Sun to The Guardian involved and raised awareness of the plight of the majority of the world. But in terms of tangible campaign successes, it was clearly massively disappointing and I think even the leaders of that campaign would agree with that.” Another frustration was the lack of priority given to climate change by the development community during the campaign. “On the other hand, Christian Aid, WDM and increasingly Oxfam are joining up to make it one of their top issues what with all of them working to stop the plans for the first new coal-fired plant in decades at Kingsnorth.”

Garman doesn’t think though that direct action is an isolated type of campaigning and shouldn’t be seen as such. “The reason why the campaign against GM crops was so successful was that it combined mass communication, lobbying and education with peaceful direct action - a pattern that’s been repeated with the campaign to stop airport expansion.”

Plane Stupid

After finishing his A-levels at 17 Garman took a year out. He went to London to volunteer for Greenpeace and at the time worked on the EU legislation regarding GM crops. He then went to Chile for six months to visit family; his grandfather was Chilean. Visiting South America again the following year was to be the last time he’d board a plane. He then came back to attend the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London where he read politics. He graduated last year with a 2:1 after doing his dissertation on the Stern Review.

While a teenager volunteering with Greenpeace, Garman met Graham Thompson and then at a student party on the night of Bush’s re-election they met Richard George. They went on to found Plane Stupid in 2005. As a network of activists targeting the aviation industry, Garman believes that Plane Stupid fundamentally changed the debate. “Marginal seats in London will be won or lost on the Heathrow issue,” he says, “Boris Johnson would have committed political suicide if he’d backed the third runway.”

The main aim of the organisation’s work was to highlight the issue of short haul flights. They saw it as the single fastest growing threat to the climate. According to Garman, almost half of all journeys taken in Europe are less than 500km, one fifth of the flights from Heathrow are short haul. “If they got rid of those flights there would definitely be no need for a third runway, they would have so much free space.”

The group first came to prominence when they gate crashed an aviation industry conference releasing balloons with rape alarms attached. Then in 2006 they broke into East Midlands airport in order to stage a sit in on a runway.

“It is only now that the aviation industry is facing taxes, they have been subsidised by the government to the tune of £10 billion a year! No one travels to Glasgow by train because that will cost you £150, but £10 for a flight. The government is effectively encouraging people to take the more polluting option.” Does the busy Garman manage to get away without the use of planes? “I leave London as often as possible, most weekends. I’ve just spent a few weeks camping in the Outer Hebrides.” How did he get there? “I took a train and then a ferry. It was just fantastic.

“We have until 2015 to get our levels of carbon emissions down” says Garman, “We need an entire transformation of our economy to suit a low carbon lifestyle. It’s a scientific thing, not an ideology.” For those in the movement, 2015 is the point of no return.

“I met Gordon Brown at the Labour Party Conference last year and asked him to reject a third runway because it’s not compatible with Britain cutting emissions. He said, "You've got a big job mate." This has not deterred Garman and the group has definitely made an impact on the public and government’s approach to the issue. Appearances on Newsnight and columns in major broadsheets and magazines have left Garman a very busy 24 year old. “Newsnight was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done,” he explains.

Kingsnorth

Recently, Garman has been involved with the defence of the six Greenpeace activists on trial for the damage they caused to a chimney at the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in November 2007. The action was taken after it’s owners EON announced plans to build an even bigger plant next door. Four members of the defence had spent nine hours scaling the chimney with the intention of painting “Gordon, bin it!” on the side. They only managed “Gordon” before an injunction was brought against them. “There were about 30 of us. We just walked straight in a back gate. We hit all the emergency stop buttons and I chained myself to a conveyor belt. In shutting down the plant for only one day we were stopping the equivalent of 30 developing countries worth of pollution.”

It turned out to be a landmark case in the battle against climate change and the actions of the activists were found to be legally justified as they were in fact preventing greater damage to property and people around the world.

At the trial Professor Hansen, a director of NASA who is believed by many to be the world’s leading scientist in the fight against climate change, gave evidence for the activists. “Then we had a leader of the Inuit people speak on our behalf as well. He came to tell the court about how the effects of plants such as this were affecting his way of life.”

Coal is the main focus for Garman at the moment and with the government soon to be making decisions on coal fire stations, the job of Greenpeace is to build up on the opposition that is already out there and broaden it.

Movement

With his work Garman says at least he can witness the changes he is making and there is also the variety, “One day I’m shutting down a plant and then the next day I’m putting on a suit and meeting advisors to government.” It is not always easy though, he was recently refused entry to any of the party conferences, along with fellow Greenpeace activist Anita Goldsmith. With a smile on his face he says that he would only have been there to lobby MPs and stage some debates, “It’s hardly surprising when you look at my record that they wouldn’t allow me in.”

As a shot of energy into the environmental movement Garman is not deterred by any difficulties he may encounter, like Brown’s remark on the runway question. According to Poyry, (the global consulting and engineering firm) if the government hit the existing renewables and efficiency targets there’d be no need for new coal plants. “No one has contested the figures of Poyry. I think the government could definitely hit the targets. I mean, look at Germany. They generated so much green electricity, they have a quarter of a million people employed in the renewable energy industry.”

When asked if he thinks people are apathetic to the climate change issue Garman says no, rather, they are disillusioned. “There is a massive gap between the government and the public when it comes to the environment. They are interested and they are worried.” He doesn’t think marching is the way to make a difference though. It made no difference to the Iraq war. “I see my role to force politicians make changes.” With his track record of constant activism over nearly 10 years it’s no wonder he was once nick-named the ‘turbo-activist’ by fellow Greenpeace volunteers.

Who does he admire in the environmental movement today? “It’s the grass root activists in the movement. They inject an urgency and passion that can’t be ignored. Then there’s also Al Gore. He is one of the most successful campaigners of our time. He’s transformed US public opinion.” Garman feels that the turn around that has occurred in America puts the British government to shame. “There is more action from the backwards, Southern conservative states of North America than there is from Brown” Garman despairs. “We’ve had the suffragettes and civil rights, we need another movement.”

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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.