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Profile: Rory Stewart

One of 25 hand picked for the Foreign Office fast track, Rory Stewart quit after five years to go wa

Early life

Stewart was born in Hong Kong in 1973. His father Brian, a military man had fought on the beaches of Normandy and then became a diplomat, while his mother Sally, is an academic and economist. He has two older half sisters and one younger sister.

At eight he came to the UK where he was educated at Eton and Oxford, with a stint in the Black Watch in between.

While in his third year Stewart was ‘half talked into’ applying for the Foreign Office (FC0) by his mother. Despite his reluctance he was one of 25 hand picked to join the coveted FCO career fast track.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

It was September 1995 when Stewart started working at the FO in London. For the first time, he says, he felt like he was actually doing something. “I was living in London,in my own flat, getting to walk across St James’ park in the mornings, going to work in a beautiful building.”

Despite flying around to different embassies and feeling the job was a joy he was starting to get tired. Exhausted from chasing girls, partying and, of course, working, his next move, two years later, was Indonesia.

“Suddenly I was in a suburb on East Java and living with a family, learning Indonesian. Everything about growing up in Malaysia came flooding back to me. I felt fitter, brighter and happier.”

After a couple of months he was put into the embassy in Jakarta, running the economic section. It was shortly after his start that the Asian financial crisis of 1997 hit. “It was very exciting and not too dissimilar to what is happening here now. The experience taught me that experts don’t always know what’s going on.”

Despite everyone saying the economy was going so well, Stewart says he was one of the pessimistic people who predicted the depth of that crisis. “Everyone’s predictions go out of the window. And I believe we’re still there.”

After two years, Stewart was then posted to Montenegro in the wake of the Kosovo campaign. This time he wasn’t a member of a large team but on his own.

“I definitely had one of those moments, where you take a step back and look at what you’re doing and think ‘this is ridiculous!' I was sent as the British representative and I was only 26."

It was prestigious, interesting and his closest boss was in London.

Was he taken seriously though being so young? “I might have had more luck if I was older but at the time I wasn’t conscious of my age being a problem. Everyone was very polite and obviously people did want to be seen to be working with Britain.”

Stewart sees both Indonesia and Montenegro as unusual postings. “They were surreal and almost comical, I had to give the impression obviously that this was all totally natural.”

Walking and books

Once his time in Montenegro was up, Stewart decided to leave. He'd been with the FCO for five years. It was at this point that he began the walk that would lead to his critically acclaimed book, The Places in Between. He had previously taken a two week walk while in Indonesia to Irian Jaya with two friends. This time around it was to last 20 months and he was to be alone for most of it.

Stewart has claimed that he didn’t feel he was cut out for a standard FCO posting and so wanted to just try something new. Stewart says walking is his way to free his mind, to contemplate and learn. Initially Stewart planned to walk around the world, however, plans change and in the late summer of 2000 he headed East from the Turkish-Iranian border.

He began moving across Iran with ‘protection’ but after three months of both suspicion and hospitality he couldn’t get his visa renewed and so moved on to the next country.

It was a journey fraught with difficulties though. He was barred from entering Afghanistan, then Pakistani officials prevented him from entering Baluchistan. He then trekked from Pakistan to India, adopting a local look (a turban, salwar kameez, turban and walking stick) in order to make life easier. Then on to Nepal.

It was by January 2002 that he began his trek across Afghanistan. It was to take him six weeks. The US troops had just invaded and had toppled the Taliban. “I watched how communities worked, how villages interacted with one another. I learnt their customs, rules and codes.” It came to be an invaluable understanding of societies suffering in the aftermath of conflict.

Iraq

In 2003 the invasion of Iraq was about to take place and, supporting the decision, Stewart was keen to get out there and help in any way he could.

He constantly sent emails but was getting no response. “I decided to get a taxi from Jordan to Baghdad, just me and the taxi driver.” He arrived in Baghdad and immediately reported to the Director of Operations who was pleased to see the eager volunteer told him to go home and await instruction.

“I wasn’t completely convinced that anything would come of it.” But it did and in August 2003 Stewart found himself the deputy governor of Maysan province in Southern Iraq, with a population of 850,000 people. He was not yet 30.

“When I returned I basically tried to apply what I’d learnt on my walk. I had learnt how they spoke of government, learnt what power means.” His 20 month trek had put him in an invaluable position. “Knowledge and sensitivity is important in these situations. You’re in someone else’s country and you are there to help. This is something you need to keep reaffirming. You are here temporarily and that it’s their country but also that you have value and importance to them. You need to stress that you both have access to power and resources. And you need to have faith in people, you need to convince people that they have the capacity to change their own life.”

For Stewart, personal relationships were very important. Each governor had a different approach, some completely unlike Stewart’s. “One friend was very legalistic in his approach. He would say ‘this is my budget, this is the paper work, less personal politics’, I think if dealing with a society where state and government have collapsed and you’re working in rural areas then you’re not likely to get far by emphasising an institution and process when what they’ve seen of that has horrified them.”

They were two tough postings; jobs that involved fending off an insurgency, negotiating hostage situations and tribal vendettas but he was aided by the knowledge gained from his walk and his ability to speak Dari and Farsi, no one was better equipped.

Having supported the invasion Stewart now believes that we should leave Iraq as soon as possible.

“As time went on it was clear that Iraq was the wrong war. It was impossible; we weren’t going to make any progress.” A three day siege on his compound, led by a friend, was example of this. As the mortars fell, how did this make him feel? “I think I realised that this was a war, it’s not a personal act, it’s not that he didn’t like me, he just didn’t like the occupation. I still think he was a charming man.”

Afghanistan

In 2006 Stewart found himself back in Afghanistan. He set up the Turquoise Mountain Foundation to work on the regeneration of the historic commercial centre of Kabul, as well as providing jobs.

One of its first tasks was to clear the city of 900 cubic metres of rubbish. Since then the Foundation has gone from one employee to 350. “I spent a long time negotiating with the community to convince them that this was a worthwhile idea; then I had to get the Afghan Government on board.” In this time they have also established the country’s first higher education Institute for Afghan Arts and Architecture, with the backing of President Karzai.

The hardest part of the job now is the money that needs to be raised. Lots of it. “This year I’ve had to raise US$22m. Lives and jobs depend on me. There is a great sense of responsibility. At the moment I’m trying to raise $2m and the winter is coming - in a city on the edge of becoming a war zone. In one month I’ve spent $550,000 on repairing 60 buildings.” Stewart hopes that it will all be complete by 2010.

What about Barack Obama’s supposed ideas for Afghanistan? “I’m very excited by Barack. People I know that work with him think he’s a good guy.” His views on Afghanistan are ones that Stewart would like to change though. “It’s a replica of the Bush administration at the moment; it’s the wrong way to look at things. Our relationship shouldn’t be electro shock therapy, there should be more patience.”

Future

Moving away slightly from cultural restoration Stewart is due to take on the role of Professor at Harvard University in January 2009. He will be a professor of human rights – teaching and running an academic faculty as the Director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. What about the Foundation? “I’ll remain executive chairman and Harvard have been good enough to pay for me to keep going out there.”

Is there time to relax? “I don’t get as much time as I’d like. Seeing family is important.” His parents are now in their 80s and settled at the family home in Crieff, Scotland. “Three weeks ago I went to northern Spain from New York. I had eight days free and I went along the Pilgrims route from Astorga to Compostella doing about 25 miles a day. It was the most wonderful opportunity to refresh my mind and have clear thoughts.” For the first time in three years he didn’t pick up a phone or an email.

Not only is there a new job in academia but also the movies. Hollywood has started to speak Stewart’s name and after Brad Pitt bought the rights to his life, Orlando Bloom is due to portray the young ‘adventurer’. Jokingly he says he’d really like Judi Dench to play him.

From diplomat to walker to governor to founder now the inspiration for a movie – it's quite a career for someone who is just 35.

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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.