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John Pilger on Vietnam's last battle: the fight for wellbeing

Vietnam was punished for its victory when US troops left. Its welfare dream has faded, but the people endure.

As the rain sheeted down, time washed away.

I looked down from the rooftop in Saigon where, more than a generation ago, in the wake of the longest war of modern times, I had watched silent, sullen streets awash. The foreigners were gone, at last. Through the mist, like little phantoms, four children ran into view, their arms outstretched. They circled and weaved and dived; and one of them fell down, feigning death. They were bombers.

This was not unusual, because there is no place like Vietnam. Within my lifetime, Ho Chi Minh's nationalist forces had fought and expelled the French, whose tree-lined boulevards, pink-washed villas and scaled-down replica of the Paris Opéra were façades for plunder and cruelty; then the Japanese, with whom the French colons collaborated; then the British, who sought to reinstal the French; then the Americans, with whom Ho had repeatedly tried to forge an alliance against China; then Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge, who attacked from the west; and finally the Chinese, who, with a vengeful nod from Washington, came down from the north. All of them were seen off at immeasurable cost.

I walked down into the rain and followed the children through a labyrinth to the Young Flower School, an orphanage. A teacher hurriedly assembled a small choir and I was greeted with a burst of singing. "What are the words of the song?" I asked Tran, whose father was a GI. He looked gravely at the floor, as nine-year-olds do, before reciting words that left my interpreter shaking her head. "Planes come no more," she repeated. "Do not weep for those just born . . . The human being is evergreen."

The year was 1978. Vietnam was being punished for seeing off the last US helicopter gunship, the war's creation; the last B-52 with its ladders of bombs silhouetted against the flash of their carnage; the last C-130s that had dumped, the US Senate was told, "a quantity of toxic chemical amounting to six pounds per head of population", causing a "foetal catastrophe"; the last of a psychosis that made village after village a murder scene.

On May Day 1975, when it was all over, Hollywood began its long celebration of the invaders as victims, the standard purgative, while revenge was policy. Vietnam was classified as "Category Z" in Washington, which imposed the draconian Trading With the Enemy Act from the First World War. This ensured that even Oxfam America was barred from sending humanitarian aid. Allies pitched in. One of Margaret Thatcher's first acts on coming to power in 1979 was to persuade the European Economic Community to halt its shipments of food and milk powder to Vietnamese children. According to the World Health Organisation, a third of all infants under five so deteriorated following the milk ban that most of them were stunted or likely to be. Almost none of this was news in the west.

Austerity, grief at the millions dead or missing and an incredulity that the war was no more became the rhythms of life in a forgotten country. The "democracy" the Americans had invented and life-supported in South Vietnam, which once accounted for half of Amnesty's worldwide toll of tortured political prisoners, had collapsed almost overnight. The roads out of Saigon became vistas of abandoned boots and uniforms. "When I heard that it was over," said Thieu Thi Tao Madeleine, "my heart flies."

Still wearing the black of the National Liberation Front (NLF), which the Americans called the Vietcong, she walked with a limp and winced as she smiled. The "Madeleine" was added by her French teachers at the lycée in Saigon that she and her sister Thieu Thi Tan Danielle had attended in the 1960s. Aged 16 and 13, "Mado" and "Dany" were recruited by the NLF to blow up the Saigon regime's national intelligence headquarters, where torture was conducted under tutelage of the CIA.

On the eve of their mission, they were betrayed and seized as they cycled home from school. When Mado refused to hand over NLF names, she was strung upside down and electrocuted, her head held in a bucket of water. They were then "disappeared" to Con Son Island, where they were shackled in "tiger cages" - cells so small they could not stand; quick lime and excreta were thrown on them from above. At the age of 16, Dany etched their defiance on the wall: "Notre bonjour à nos chers et chères camarades." The words are still there.

Last month, I returned to Vietnam, whose agony I reported for almost a decade. A poem was waiting in my room in the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon. Typed in English, it was a "heartfelt prayer" for "the stones [of life] getting soft", and ended with, "I'm still living, struggling . . . please phone." It was Mado, though I prefer her Vietnamese name, Tao. We had lost touch; I knew of her work at the Institute of Ecology, her marriage to another NLF soldier and the birth of a son against all the odds after the damage done to her in the tiger cages.

Through the throng of tourists and businessmen in the Caravelle lobby navigated diminutive Dany, now 57. Tao was waiting in a taxi outside. Five years ago, she suffered a stroke and lost the use of her voice and much of her body, but these have now returned and although she needs to take your arm, she is really no different from when she told me her heart "flies". We drove past the sentinels of the new Vietnam, the hotels and apartment blocks under construction, then turned into a lane where woodsmoke rose and children peered and frogs leapt in the beam of our headlights.

The walls of Tao's home are a proud montage of struggle and painful gain: she and Dany at the Lycée Marie Curie; the collected exhortations of Ho; the letters of comrades long gone. It all seemed, at first, like flowers preserved between the pages of a forgotten book. But no: here were the very icons of and inspirations for resistance that new generations must re-create all over again, for while battlegrounds change, the enemy does not. "Each time we are invaded," Tao said, "we fight them off. At the same time we fight to keep our soul. Isn't that the lesson of Vietnam and of history?"

I was once told a poignant story by a Frenchman who was in Hanoi during the Christmas 1972 bombing. "I took shelter in the Museum of History," he said, "and there, working by candlelight, with the B-52s overhead, were young men and women earnestly trying to copy as many bronzes and sculptures as they could. They told me, 'Even if the originals are destroyed, something will remain and our roots will be protected.'"

History, not ideology, is a living presence in Vietnam. Here, the experience of history forged a communal ingenuity and patience to the extreme human limits. In the South, the NLF leadership was an alliance of Catholics, liberals, Buddhists and communists, and most of those who fought in the northern army were peasant nationalists. With its structures and disciplines, communism was the means by which Vietnam's protracted wars of independence were fought and won. This is appreciated by Vietnamese today who idly refer to "the communist period" as if the party were no longer in power. What matters here is Vietnam. Visit the museums in Hanoi and it is clear that the word Ho Chi Minh never stopped using was "independence": "the right you never surrender". In retirement, President Dwight Eisenhower wrote that, had his administration not delayed (sabotaged) the national elections agreed at the United Nations conference in Geneva in 1954, "possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for Ho".

I thought about this on the journey back from Tao's. More than 20 years of war would not have happened. Three million people would have lived. No babies would have been deformed by Agent Orange. No feet would have been blown off by the cluster bombs that were tested here. On the overnight train to Danang, I could tell the bomb craters that joined together, leaving not even Pompeiis of war, except perhaps on a distant rise the gravestones of the anti-aircraft militia. They were often young women like Mado and Dany. In Hanoi, I took a taxi to Kham Thien Street, which I first saw in 1975, laid waste by B-52s that had struck every third house. A block of flats where 283 people died is now a monument of a mother and child. There are fresh flowers; the traffic thunders by.

Sitting in a café with these unnecessary ghosts, I read that Britain's military chief, General Sir David Richards, had called for Nato "to plan for a 30- or 40-year role" in Afghan­istan. Nato is said to spend $50m for every Taliban guerrilla it kills, and cluster bombs are still a favourite. The general expressed his care for the Afghan people. The French and Americans also said they cared for the "gooks" they killed in industrial quantities.
When I was last in Vietnam 15 years ago, making a film, my only brush with officialdom was the ministry of culture's concern that the footage I had shot at My Lai, where hundreds of people, mostly women and children, were slaughtered in 1968, might offend the Americans. In Saigon, the War Crimes Museum has been renamed the War Remnants Museum. Outside, tourists are offered pirated copies of the Lonely Planet guide, with its tendentious devotion to an American sense of "Nam".

Perhaps the Vietnamese can afford to be generous, but the reason, I think, runs deeper. Since Dai Thang, "the great victory", the policy has been to end a seemingly endless state of siege. Colour and energy have arrived like breaking waves; Hanoi, with its mist-covered lakes and boulevards once pocked with air-raid shelters, is now a gracious, confident, youthful city. There is the kind of freedom that ignores, navigates and circumvents the old Stalinist strictures. The papers take officials to task and damn corruption, but then, occasionally, there is the bleakest of headlines: "Alleged agitator to face trial". Cu Huy Ha Vu, 53, has been charged with "illegal actions against the state". Such is an ill-defined line you dare not cross.

Bill Clinton came to lunch at my hotel in Hanoi. He runs an Aids charity that does work in Vietnam. In 1995, he "normalised relations" between Washington and Hanoi. That meant Vietnam was allowed to join the World Trade Organisation and qualify for World Bank loans provided it embraced the "free market", destroyed its free public services and paid off the bad debts of the defunct Saigon regime: money that had helped bankroll the American war. The reparations agreed by President Richard Nixon in the 1973 Paris Peace Accords were ignored. Normalisation also meant that foreign investors were offered tax-free "economic processing zones" with "competitively priced" (cheap) labour.

The Vietnamese were finally being granted membership of the "international community", as long as they created a society based on inequity and exploited labour, and abandoned the health service that was the envy of the developing world, with its pioneering work in paediatrics and primary care, along with a free education system that produced one of the world's highest literacy rates. Today, ordinary people pay for health care and schools; the elite send their children to expensive schools in Hanoi's "international city" and poach scholarships at American universities.

Whereas farmers in difficulty could once depend on rural credit from the state (interest was unknown), they must now go to private lenders, the usurers who once plagued the peasantry. And the government welcomed back Monsanto with its genetically modified seeds. Monsanto was one of the manufacturers of Agent Orange, which gave Vietnam its own, chemical Hiroshima. Last year, the US Supreme Court rejected an appeal by lawyers acting for more than three million Vietnamese deformed by Agent Orange. One of the judges, Clarence Thomas, once worked as a corporate lawyer for Monsanto.

In his seminal study Anatomy of a War, the historian Gabriel Kolko argues that the party of Ho Chi Minh enjoyed "success as a social movement based largely on its response to peasant desires" and that its surrender to the "free market" is a betrayal. His disillusion is understandable, but the need to internationalise a war-ruined country was desperate, as was building a counterweight to China, the ancient foe. Unlike China, and despite the new Gucci emporiums in the centre of Hanoi and Saigon, the Vietnamese have not yet gone all the way with the brutalities of "tiger" or crony capitalism. Since 1985, the rate of malnutrition among children has almost halved. And tens of thousands of those who fled in boats have quietly returned without "a single case of victimisation", according to the EU official who led the assistance programme in 1995. In many parts of the country, forests are rising again and the sound of birds and the rustle of wildlife are heard again, thanks to a regreening programme initiated during the war by Professor Vo Quy of Vietnam National University in Hanoi.

For me, keeping at bay the forces that pour trillions into corrupt banks and wars while destroying the means of civilised life is Vietnam's last great battle. That the party elite respect, or fear, a people who, through the generations, have devoted themselves to throwing off oppressors is evident in the state's often ambivalent responses to unauthorised strikes against ruthless foreign employers. "Are we in a Gorbachev phase?" said a journalist. "Or maybe the party and the people are watching each other for now. Remember always, Vietnam is different."

On my last day in Saigon, I walked along Dong Hoi, no longer a street of hustlers and beggars, bar girls and shambling GIs looking for something in the cause of nothing. Back then, I would stroll past the Hotel Royale and look up at the corner balcony on the first floor and see a stocky Welshman, his camera resting on his arm. A greeting in Welsh might drift down, or his take-off of an insane colonel we both knew. Today, the balcony and the Royale are gone, and Philip Jones Griffiths died two years ago. He was perhaps the most gifted and humane photographer of any war. Single-handed, he tried to stop a "search and destroy" operation that killed a huddled group of women and children, eliciting from an American artillery officer the memorable response: "What civilians?" One of his finest photographs is a Goya-like picture of a captured NLF soldier, terribly wounded and surrounded by the large boots of his captors, yet undefeated in his humanity. Such is Vietnam.

“The War You Don't See", John Pilger's new film, opens in cinemas on 12 December and is broadcast on ITV1 on 14 December

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 06 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Vietnam: the last battle

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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.