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'Everything is in ruins'

The war with Russia last August has devastated Georgia: work and even food are now scarce. And Georg

A late autumn afternoon in Tbilisi. A group of middle-aged men, neatly dressed in yellowing shirts and fading suits, are playing backgammon under the trees in a square in the Armenian quarter. Several have well-groomed moustaches. The atmosphere is jovial: Alexander, a proud man in his late fifties, dominates the group with his loud laughter. Were it not for the derelict shells of buildings behind them, this could be any Mediterranean capital.

The war with Russia last August did not come near the capital, but this part of Tbilisi looks bombed out all the same. What happened? It's just decay, they say. Much worse than during the Soviet era. "Just look at the state of the buildings," says Alexander. "It was never like that before. No one has work." He used to run a factory that made mechanical parts, but is now one of the long-term unemployed. He is an educated man, proud of his flawless Russian (Georgian is his native language). In Soviet times he con sidered himself middle class. Now he feels poor and humiliated.

Meanwhile, his country has backed itself into a corner. On Tuesday the second round of international talks on security in the Caucasus opened in Geneva; discussions were described as "difficult" and the Tbilisi-Moscow relationship is as tense as ever. But a change of leader in Washington might make a difference: President Saa kashvili will soon have lost his chief ally in the west, George W Bush. A populist and opportunist, Saakashvili is dismissed by many Georgians as too hot-headed, and organised protests are planned against him.

After ousting Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003, Mikhail Saakashvili, now 40, helped to attract millions in foreign funding. He was perceived as being a pro-western reformer and democrat. The Americans gave $22m during the war in August and promised another $1bn in September. That came on top of $1.6bn in outside investment in 2007, much of it from the US, a 40 per cent increase on the previous year. The foreigners are to blame for this whole mess, Alexander asserts, because they prop up dodgy regimes. "Our government is more corrupt than any other in the world. And the US and the UK support them in their corruption."

The American money has not benefited the likes of Alexander. To reach the capital's Armenian quarter from the international airport there is only one route: straight down President George W Bush Street, the only pothole-free highway in town, festooned with pictures of a waving Bush. But Alexander can't afford to travel abroad and doesn't expect to be able to find the money any time soon, so he has never driven along the route. Local officials have used the foreign money to buy up the best property and evict the poor, he says. His own house is at risk: it belonged to his great-great-grandmother and all his family were born there. Some people he knows survive by stealing, he says - a loaf here, some supermarket food there. He claims to have friends in prison who are desperate to stay because inside they don't go hungry.

“Our government is more corrupt than any other . . . and the US and the UK support them in their corruption”

Nana, 44, a biologist, is strolling through a nearby park opposite the parliament building with her four-year-old son. This is where Saa kashvili's supporters celebrated with fireworks when he forced Shevardnadze's resignation in 2003. "Things feel uncomfortable now," she says. "I'm not frightened at the moment but I feel as if we are not going in the right direction." She worries about her son's future. Eighty per cent of the intelligentsia have lost their jobs, she says, and no one needs scientists in the way they did in the Soviet era. "I am lucky - I still have a job. Most people I know are out of work. I don't think this problem with Russia will be resolved peacefully and I find that very upsetting. Saakashvili was wrong to use violence [against the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia]. It was not the right way to respond. I feel as if we are not being told the facts. This situation is benefiting someone, but you can't quite work out who. I do agree that we should fight to keep these territories because they are ours and not Russia's. But it should be a diplomatic fight, not a military one. Why kill people over something like this?"

The one hope, she says, is the popular female politician Nino Burjanadze, a 44-year-old pro-democracy campaigner who was briefly acting president before Saakashvili took office. Burjanadze has already aligned herself with the protests against Saakashvili's actions this summer and is calling for elections. The word is that "something" could happen as soon as the end of this month. "No one knows what, though," Nana says, stroking her son's head. The more she talks, the more upset she becomes. "Sorry - I am not articulating myself very well. It's because I'm afraid."

Down the road in an underpass leading to the main street, Rustaveli, four menacing-looking youths are hunched together around a cap thrown on the floor. Suddenly they open their mouths to sing, and a pure Georgian chant reverberates around the walls. Next to them a woman in a housecoat and slippers is selling curtains. Some old men are having a picnic of tomatoes and bread on an upturned cardboard box. Out on the street, stray cats and dogs are everywhere, picking their way through buildings abandoned halfway through reconstruction. You encounter well-dressed, middle-aged people who look as if they are sitting down waiting for someone or something. It is only when you see the outstretched, cupped hand and the expression of shame on each face that you realise they are begging. At a set of traffic lights one man is trying to sell balloons, weaving in and out of six lanes of traffic.

Before the war with Russia in August, Georgia’s economy was expanding rapidly: its reported growth rate for 2007 was 12.4 per cent, according to the New York-based analysts EurasiaNet. There are signs of stability: BP, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and the legal firms Baker & McKenzie and DLA Piper all have offices here. There is a vigorous cafe culture: a chain of literary cafes has opened in recent months. For young people in their late teens and twenties, especially those who speak several languages (as many do), the outlook is not bad; new Marriott and Hyatt hotels have opened and the service industry is growing. Anyone who can get a job with a western company can hope for a salary of up to $2,000 a month. But this is an option for only a privileged minority. The salaries of state teachers and doctors are a tenth of this. And men like Alexander are completely washed up.

In Tbilisi's most affluent quarter, Shardeni, the mood is more combative. Besarion Darjani, an affable gallery owner in his fifties, says he supports the current regime: without American aid Georgia would be even worse off.

"It's all about money, the oil pipeline and Russia's pretensions to be an empire," he says. "Putin wants someone in some godforsaken Siberian town in the middle of nowhere to turn on his TV news, see the bombing, beat his chest and say, 'Hey, that's our territory!' Saakashvili was obliged to do what he did because he had to defend our territory against the Russians. He was provoked."

His gallery sells the work of 50 local artists, many of whom have up to ten dependants. It is largely foreigners who buy the artwork, he adds, so he is happy to see them and their money. In a courtyard near the gallery, a group of Americans are drinking a bottle of Georgian red wine. Last month the Georgian Chamber of Commerce welcomed a group of a dozen British tour ope rators for a week-long trip. But, with the crisis unresolved - and likely to flare up again at any moment - fewer foreigners have been coming.

If the situation with Russia is not resolved quickly, says Darjani, his business could dissolve: "Russia spits on the world and on any- one who gets in the way of their great empire. The current government has ruined years of friendship between Georgia and Russia. I don't blame ordinary Russians, though. I have a lot of friends living in Moscow and Leningrad. But the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are Georgians. Their nationalities have been artificially created by the Russians - they give them passports and money and promise them autonomy. So then of course they want to be Russian. But what about the fact that it is our territory and there are Georgians living there?"

Many of these South Ossetians and Abkha zians have sought refuge in Tbilisi, living in hospitals and schools. Their numbers are estimated at anything between 20,000 and 60,000. (According to the UN, another 20,000 have fled into Russia.) The capital's infrastructure can barely support them.

The authorities host regular entertainment and when several hundred Georgians turn up for a charity performance at the theatre on a Saturday night, they look as if they almost fit in but somehow don't. These are modern refugees: the children are impeccably dressed and taking pictures of each other on their mobile phones.

Some of the other theatregoers are local people. I meet a group of young women outside on the balcony. Dressed in satin blouses and leather trousers, they are not worried about Georgia's future. "You couldn't really notice any difference in Tbilisi in August," one of them says. "It is worrying, of course, but I think that whatever happens the EU and Nato will bail us out, especially if it gets really bad."

But those of the older generation know how conflicts have been resolved in the past. Many of the actors from the theatre died in the last war in the early 1990s in Abkhazia. “These were boys who did not even know how to hold a gun,” says the director Robert Sturua. “I told them, ‘If you go to war, don’t bother coming back, because I don’t want murderers in my theatre.’”

The theatre has a small government subsidy but survives largely through donations from an anonymous businessman, who pays the directors' and actors' salaries. They cannot hope for too much from the state, says Sturua. "We have a government that is making a lot of mistakes. That's normal, though. That's freedom. It's like Jefferson said, 'Freedom is a tree you must water with blood.' It sounds cruel but it's the truth. Georgia has suffered more than any other former Soviet republic. There is a generation of people who have completely lost hope."

Worst of all, the war in the summer eclipsed some of Georgia's greatest cultural achievements this year, he says. The State Ballet of Georgia was acclaimed at this year's Edinburgh Festival, where the much-feted prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili performed Giselle. Another Georgian dancer, David Makhateli, is a rising star with the Royal Ballet in London.

Sturua argues that life has returned to something approaching normality since the events of August: there is no military presence here at all and already the tourists are returning. Cultural and historical tourism is something many see as Georgia's potential salvation. Sturua is an optimist: he sees no reason to think Georgia won't thrive once the territorial disputes with Russia are resolved.

But this sort of talk will not pacify the likes of Alexander. He just wants a regime change, and doesn't care who becomes president so long as he or she stands on an anti-corruption ticket. "There is no such thing as normal life here," he says. "Everything is in ruins. Even if you work you don't always get paid." But how do people survive, then? "A very good question," he laughs. "Why don't you ask our government how people like me get by? They don't care."

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to get us out of this mess

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

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.