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The money will roll right in

Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko is back. But what was he all about? Meant to symbolise the finan

It's been 23 years since the release of Wall Street; time does fly when you're witnessing the fall of western civilisation. Two worldwide re­cessions later, Oliver Stone's film still has the emotional complexity of a flicker book. But it emerged early enough during the spread of yuppiedom to give the illusion of having fostered or colluded in the rise of the phenomenon it was commenting on. Perhaps it wasn't an illusion after all. Social and cultural movements can only benefit from artistic ratification, and Wall Street provided that as much as Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, published the same year, or Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho (1991), neither of which was any more successful in killing off the targets of its ire. Apparently intended as character assassinations on a stereotype, all three instead had the effect of a massage.

Wall Street opened in the United States in December 1987, less than two months after Black Monday. In the ruthless figure of Gordon Gekko, an arbitrageur but not a gentleman, the film provided a personification of that catas­trophe's unseen catalysts. Like most fictional characters that aspire to the iconic, Gekko came with a distinctive idiom and image. Slicked-back hair gave him the aerodynamic sleekness of the alien in Alien. And he had catchphrases, too, which can only have boosted his appeal, Loadsamoney-style. Greed was good, and lunch was for wimps. Red braces, strangely enough, escaped all censure.

The popular myth that Gekko was the villain of the piece, conceived as an abhorrent symbol of his times, has been recycled so often that we have begun to believe it. But it's no wonder Wall Street came to double as a recruiting drive for prospective bankers when Gekko was the sole source of vim in the movie. Remove him from the action and your Bloody Mary becomes a tomato juice.

When the single focus of an audience's int­erest and entertainment is a shark in a chalk-stripe suit, you can hardly protest when he also becomes an object of adulation. At least when Jonathan Demme made The Silence of the Lambs, he had, in Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins, actors of roughly equal heft. The face-offs in Wall Street between Charlie Sheen, as the go-getting young broker Bud Fox, and Michael Douglas, as Gekko, were fatally uneven by contrast.

Gekko came at a ripe time for Douglas - the actor's run of victimised, even feminised, heroes (Basic Instinct, Disclosure, The Game) had begun a few months earlier with Fatal Attraction, but his range could also stretch to fury, as proved by Wall Street and, later, The War of the Roses and Falling Down. And Sheen? Let's just say that you can't write a scene in which he asks the night sky, "Who am I?", as he does in Wall Street, and then expect that to take care of depth. At least the sky refrains from answering: "Middling actor with the common touch. Got where you are 'cos of Dad."

The absence of any feasible threat to Gekko is only half the problem. Just when he is on the brink of defeat, as he is at the end of the film, when Bud becomes a snitch for the authorities, the picture turns discreetly away; it's like a nature documentary that cannot bring itself to show an ailing lion being savaged by hyenas. That simple editorial choice gives the lie to the notion that Wall Street is a diatribe against Gekko and his ilk. Sentimentality wins out: the sight of Gekko looking vulnerable remains too awful to be envisaged anywhere but in our imagination.

In fact, British television audiences enjoyed the privilege of seeing Gekko subtly undermined. When the ageing scam merchant Del Boy (David Jason) in John Sullivan's BBC sitcom Only Fools and Horses took to wearing Gekko's trademark braces and brandishing a then-exotic mobile phone in an attempt to affect yuppie swagger, something in his absurd pantomime reflected back on to Wall Street itself. Del Boy's hero-worship made Gekko seem ridiculous and peevish in a way that the film had failed to do.

This is where Stone's sequel Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps comes in. Its greatest worth lies in finally facing up to the sight of Gekko on his uppers. The film begins in 2001, with Gekko's release from prison after serving eight years for insider trading. His raggedy mane looks like silver seaweed; his face is as crumpled and faded as an old dollar bill.

Moving forward another seven years, Gekko is now the author of a cautionary bestseller (title - Is Greed Good?) and can be found attracting queues at bookstore signings and idolatry on lecture tours. In the audience is a young trader, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), who is engaged to Gekko's estranged daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan).

Knowing that audiences in 2010 will be slower to root for a financially motivated protagonist, the screenwriters Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff have supplied Jake with the lust for a more acceptable kind of green: he's trying to convince his paymasters to throw their weight behind green energy. But as the markets crash and his investment-banking firm goes under in the absence of a government bailout, Jake accepts a job with Bretton James (Josh Brolin), a vampiric banker who is the new film's substitute for the Gekko of old.

It's an odd quirk of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps that it feels simultaneously topical and dated. On the one hand, the film deals in the subject matter and jargon with which we are all now au fait. Even five years ago, the world might have assumed that quantitative easing was one of the many services that Charlie Sheen once paid Heidi Fleiss to perform. Now we know better. The flipside of having experienced first-hand the discomfort of life during a recession is that the drama of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, restricted as it is to penthouse rather than pavement, can feel distinctly remote. Dominic Savage's 2009 BBC film, Freefall, was made for a fraction of the cost of Stone's movie, but the ease with which it moved between culpability and suffering, showing the consequences for ordinary families of the bankers' recklessness, puts both Wall Street pictures to shame. Engaging with a common reality is an admirable ambition for a Hollywood film, but it must be halfway to failure when a key plot-point concerns a $100m trust fund placed in jeopardy, or when Jake tells his mother: "I'm lending you $30,000 that I barely even have." (You've got to love that "barely".)

Gordon Gekko takes a back seat in the new film, but the old problems pertaining to him have only partly been solved: there are still no other characters to compete with his magnetism. There is the added weight, too, of Douglas's off-screen baggage. The screenwriters have given Gekko a backstory involving a wayward son who met a sticky end years earlier; Douglas's own son, Cameron, is currently serving a prison sentence for drug offences, and the actor has admitted to being an unsatisfactory father - a confession that he repeats here, in character. And though the film was finished before Douglas received his recent throat cancer diagnosis, that doesn't make it any easier to listen to him employing cancer analogies when discussing speculation, or the human capacity for greed.

If the defining flaw of the first Wall Street film was its refusal to cut its ties with Gekko, then the sequel suffers from a similar excess of fidelity to the character. Given the apologetic air of the sequel, and the contrite climate in which it was conceived, it is no surprise that Gekko ends the story here as a changed man. But the qualities that we seek in the people who run the banking industry are not the same as those that make for compelling char­acters in fiction.

And while it would be wonderful if real-life Gekkos underwent the transformation that we see on screen, it is an own-goal for the film that some of us will come out thinking that we liked Gekko better when he was bad. To hear him draw to a close the combined four hours of the Wall Street movies by admitting that human beings are "a mixed bag" carries all the satisfaction of watching Hannibal Lecter tucking into a nut roast.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic

“Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" (certificate 12A) opens on 6 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 04 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Licence to cut

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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.”

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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.

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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.