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Call it a load of old bull

Bad banks, troubled assets and securitised loans – such linguistic tricks just add to the madness of

Euphemisms, by their nature, are supposed to plaster over unpleasant truths. In my adopted home town of New Orleans, a city known for its straight talking, the estate agents have lately taken to renaming the little residen­ces at the backs of main houses - long known by their truthful name, "slave quarters" - as "dependency units". The mind rebels.

I always thought of the economic and financial worlds as similarly resistant to euphemising. We had bulls and bears, of course, but those were metaphorical caricatures of real attitudes. Most of the jargon of the money world was, if anything, mind-numbingly literal: puts and calls, debentures and debt. But that all changed during the recent madness, a madness that may have been exacerbated by the looseness of the language.

This was a time, after all, when financial services began to be called "products". Conventional thinking would suggest that if I lend you money I haven't given you a product; I've afforded you (temporarily) the means to purchase products or services. But that was the term financial firms, insurance companies and banks started to use to refer to what they were offering.

Did it make people in these enterprises feel more muscular, less nurturing? Was it a linguistic farewell wave to a manufacturing economy, disappearing just as finance took centre stage? Seemingly innocuous, this change naturally led, as it did in the world of actual products, to an important next step: product innovation. Loans are loans, but a loan product seems awfully lonely up there on the shelf, all by itself. It needed some friends, some fellow products. Some friends.

Enter Ninas, home loans that required from their prospective borrowers "no income, no assets". Like the other loan "products", they had something in common with their manufactured brethren: once sold, they left the purview of their sellers. As with products, future responsibility for them was farmed out to someone else, preferably in Bangalore. Calling these things products made it possible, maybe even mandatory, to treat them as such. The only "service" left in the equation was the "servicing" of the loans, which itself was a euphemism for collecting.

Calling these loans Ninas feminised them, made them seem cute, charming, a little naughty, perhaps, but not criminal. Just as referring to the whole class of loans as "sub-prime" avoided the unpleasantness of the reality that they were junk. It's like describing someone on his deathbed as "sub-well".

When things started going bad, the language started getting even cuter. A year ago, we were told that the main cause of the crisis was the crushing burden of "toxic assets" - home mortgages lent to borrowers who could afford to pay them off just as soon as pigs filed flight plans. That's why three-quarters of a trillion dollars went from the US treasury into the Troubled Assets Relief Programme, or TARP (reassuring, isn't it? A safe plastic covering, in capital letters), supposedly to get these toxic assets off the books of the banks. In fact, entirely something else happened with the money, and with the language. While the federal funds became a simple cash infusion into favoured banks, the word "toxic" was nudged aside in favour of "troubled". Really. The assets were now to be seen as delinquent youths, their faces smudged with dirt, their clothes tattered but their souls still full of potential. It wasn't really their fault. They didn't need to be wiped off the books, just . . . understood.

Where were those assets supposed to go? Many officials proposed the notion of a "bad bank". Again, just a miscreant, like the dog that poops on the living-room carpet. Bad bank! Sit over there in a corner and think about those stinky mortgages you're collecting! It's a rolled-up newspaper to your noggin if you try it again. Of course, the main thrust of this particular euphemistic gambit was a brave attempt to convince us that there was, by contrast, such a thing as a good bank. Nice try.

When you want your euphemising to be particularly opaque, you go French. Hence, "tranche". Look it up and the dictionary will tell you it means "slice", but that sounds like something that's done in a delicatessen, parcelling out thin portions of pastrami to the waiting rye bread. That's not what sophisticated gents (and ladies) in bespoke suitings do inside Important Offices. The desired effect of tranche was to induce a tranche-like state, in which investors would come to assume that the people slicing up pieces of bad mortgages actually knew what they were doing.

This leads us to "securitising", which is to securing as "believitising" is to believing. In fact, believitising would be the creation of exactly the level of credulity this stuff called for; unfortunately, nobody bothered to coin that word until just now. The essence of securitising was persuading the financial ratings companies, by means as yet unknown, that a collection of slices of crappy mortgages (or a slice of a collection, take your pick) could be an AAA-grade investment. Those letters are themselves a kind of linguistic shorthand, as what they're really saying is: "Of course, this posits a new scale on which, if securitised mortgage packages are AAA, a truly secure investment would be ratedAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA+++." That is, it would be ratingised.

When the market tumbled a year ago, there was an uptick within a few weeks. That started a discussion about whether or not this was a "dead cat bounce", the short-lived surge upward before the destined plummeting resumes. When I first heard the phrase, I thought it was the name of a particularly inelegantly titled 1940s dance tune. But no, it's an example of financial malphemism, in which a mere reversal of market direction is depicted as an act of cruelty to animals - the dropping of an expired (or soon-to-be-expired) feline for the purpose of measuring gravity's effect on its air-worthiness. The deliberate crudity of the phrase probably reflects its origins among short-sellers and their contempt for any sign of hope.

Which brings us to the pedlars of positive thinking, among whom "green shoots" have contended with "glimmers of hope" as the optimistic usage of choice. "Green shoots" implies an organic process of growth, outside human control, but dependent on the season. "Glimmers" are more promising, requiring neither a green thumb nor the right time of year to make their appearance. This phrase has been a par­ticular favourite of the US treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner. Visualising these glimmers became for him almost an evangelical enterprise. Were they just an aurora geithnerealis, or were they signs of a true recovery? Don't ask, brothers and sisters, just believe.

And then there is the word tossed around blithely by CEOs and financial journalists alike, designed to drain all the dread out of one of the most frightening consequences of economic slowdown. That word is "shed" - not as in the little building out back where you keep your tools, but as in what prudent companies do to jobs. We've not been experiencing the widespread throwing of people out of work recently, just the shedding of jobs.
The word makes the process sound all National Geographic, like what snakes do with their skins every whenever. But its progress has not yet led it to the scene of the actual transaction: "Bill, we value your contribution to the company over the years. I'm sorry, but we're going to have to shed you." No, "let you go" still is the go-to euphemism. Which raises the question: "But what if I don't want to go?" We're still letting you do it.

Contemplating these linguistic tricks inspired me. I have written songs around them, including "Bad Bank", "Troubled Assets", "Dead Cat Bounce" and "Glimmers of Hope". They appear online as part of a collection of compositions about the meltdown, named after the two contending forces in stock markets: Greed and Fear. It was an act not so much of composing, frankly, as of songitising.

Harry Shearer plays more than 12 characters in "The Simpsons" and was Derek Smalls in "This is Spinal Tap". For more information, visit his website.

This article first appeared in the 07 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Boy George

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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.