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Life after Tom Hurndall

Jocelyn Hurndall - whose son Tom was unlawfully killed by the Israeli Defence Forces as he tried to

I first visited Israel more than three decades ago in 1971. A carefree 21 year-old, I worked as a volunteer for a couple of months on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, right on the border with Lebanon.

Today, I can still vividly recall landing at what was then called Lod airport with a group of other volunteers and being driven north for several hours through the clear starry night.

As we approached our destination there was a change of speed and a sense of getting higher and higher. We had to hold on to the sides of the lorry as it revved and manoeuvred round the bumpy U-bends.

Around midnight we stopped on the border road with Lebanon and I could hear voices talking in Hebrew, shouting orders.

Glaring lights outlined armed soldiers milling around a parked tank and other military vehicles were silhouetted against the pitch-black. "There’s a curfew," someone explained. "It starts at seven o’clock in the evening. So the military will have to escort us along the road to the kibbutz." I had never been in a society controlled by the military before; it felt strange and mildly alarming.

Throughout the whole time that I was there working alongside young kibbutzniks picking peaches within yards of the wire fence that marked the Lebanese border, I never once thought to ask why we needed soldiers standing guard at the corners of the field. I gasp now at my early politically naivety, though I could never in a million years have foreseen how my family would later become so caught up in one of the world’s most complex and intractable conflicts.

Thirty-two years later my son, Tom, was the same age when, as a photo-journalist wanting to make a difference, he travelled down to Rafah after the killing of peace activist, Rachel Corrie and UN project Manager, Iain Hook, a few weeks earlier.

I can imagine my curious son after having met with a family two days before and learning of the shooting of two civilian Palestinians joining a Palestinian demonstration against IDF violence. That day three children came under fire from an Israeli position and Tom ran forward to carry a little boy to safety. As he returned for the two remaining girls he was shot in the head and died following 9 months in a coma.


In the wake of Tom's death, Jocelyn Hurndall has devoted herself to the cause of Palestinian education

As happens after such life-changing moments, a line was drawn. The span of my life was abruptly dislocated and past, present and future no longer seemed to bear any relation to each other. In the months that followed our small family was to take on Israel’s most powerful institution, the Israeli Defence Forces, in a search for the facts about the shooting of our son.

Although I have since been re-stringing my life the feeling of disorientation lasted until I at last found a way of piecing the fragments together in a job. A particular job. In April 2008 I became Development Director of Friends of Birzeit University, which has been supporting education in the West Bank since 1978. As a former teacher and Head of Learning Support, I am acutely aware of the right of young Palestinians to education, which is being severely jeopardised at a time when the creation of future leaders has never been more vital.

In my new position, my past interest in education inclusion has merged with a cause from which I am now inseparable.

At the beginning of June, I visited the University to see for myself the effects of the Occupation on the lives of ordinary students and staff. Since Tom was shot I have crossed many checkpoints but this was different. There was no hint of tension as the Palestinian taxi driver drove me alongside the 16-foot high concrete slabs forming the backdrop to the approach to Ramallah and all seemed quiet as we passed smoothly through the 'upgraded' Qalandiya checkpoint from Jerusalem into the West Bank. The wall on the ‘Israeli’ side has been overlaid with attractive brickwork and night-lighting and the crossing was so seamless that I only realized we’d passed through because of the sudden disintegration of the road surface and the swirl of dust in the air.

I had anticipated the bored, uninterested looks and occasional unprovoked harassment of the young Israeli soldiers. In the past, my British passport and the circumstances of my visits to Gaza had afforded no protection, but I knew any harassment I faced now would be nothing in comparison to the intimidation experienced by the students I was soon to meet.

Previously I had been concerned with the rules of engagement, now I was entering another sphere of human rights – the right to education.

This was a time for gathering facts and I was interested to learn from Rajai Zidat, the Scholarships Officer, of recent student detentions and harassment. I discovered that in December 2007 Fadi Ahmad, the Head of Birzeit University’s Student Council, had been charged with belonging to and ‘holding a position of responsibility’ in an ‘illegal organization’. He is currently in Ofer prison and will be incarcerated for at least a year on what appears to be a legalistic means to punish young Palestinians engaged in political activity.

Between January and March alone, one employee and eight students were arrested, including Fadi’s replacement, Abdullah Owais, who is being held on similar grounds but is still awaiting trial.

The process of Administrative Detention is a system of imprisonment without charge. Secret evidence from Israeli intelligence is shown to the military judge and used to justify incarceration for a period up to six months, on a renewable basis. The reasons given are not communicated to the student or his lawyer and one Birzeit undergraduate has been held in Administrative Detention for three years.

Many students, regardless of whether they’re involved in student activities, undergo arbitrary questioning and if they object they are harassed at checkpoints, denied work permits and exposed to house invasions. A shocking 30 per cent of the student population living in Birzeit village are subjected to such 'interviews'.

And it is not only the students who are suffering. I met with the warm Dr Liza Taraki, Dean of Graduate Studies, who described to me the hardships experienced by lecturers and their lack of professional development, which is resulting in a brain drain.

What she told me endorsed all I had learnt about the state of Israel’s de facto control over which students and teachers can access the University. Since the beginning of 2006, many thousands of Palestinians with foreign passports and other foreign nationals have been denied entry to visit, work or study in the OPTs or are being threatened with deportation. Israel holds responsibility for these areas under the Geneva conventions, but flouts agreements of reciprocity in diplomacy and immigration rules with other states.

The university is struggling to thrive against all odds and when I met its president, Dr Nabil Kassis, I was struck by his dignity, calmness and quiet conviction. Here was someone who was fully aware of the conflict between students’ right to education on the one hand and the prohibitions brought about by the Occupation on the other - and the need for international intervention.

During our meeting, there was a commotion outside and as he reached to close the window he said, “A student was shot last year. This week the students are remembering him. Everyone is affected when such tragedies happen.”

The University usually receives around USD$1.5m from the Palestinian Authority (PA) every year as part of the normal package given to all universities proportional to their size. However, during the economic blockade of the Hamas government after the Parliamentary elections in 2006, the PA could only transfer a mere drop of these funds, leaving the University short of USD$1.2m.

As a former teacher it was hard to take on board the fact that staff salaries were halved for two months, 3,000 students were unable to pay fees and went on strike, and the annual budget was severely affected. As Dr Kassis observed, “It’s contrary to everything you expect in the academic world. You expect the possibility of open-mindedness and this goes to the core of the principle of academic freedom”.

On my final day, I attended a morning of impressive professional training of the Schools Counsellors, who give excellent practical and psychological support to many students at Birzeit who have suffered from harassment and poverty and as my first visit to the University came to an end, I felt more strongly than ever that the three areas that should never be politicised – health, education and the civilian judiciary system – had indeed become deeply entangled.

Tom’s courage brought me here. We learn much from risk-takers and personal tragedy can bring great creativity – but how many risk-takers will there need to be before the international community is provoked into upholding international law with regard to the education rights of young Palestinians?

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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.