Letter from Gaza

Death and destruction have been visited on Gaza, but the real target is stronger than ever. Hamas ha

On the morning after his inauguration, President Obama made his first international telephone call to a world leader at 8am Washington time - to the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. This was a clear signal that the new president was serious in getting down to business in the region. Obama assured Abbas of his support for a sustained ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and his backing of the decision made by European leaders at the Egyptian resort of Sharm El Sheikh last week to get tough on weapons smuggling. Telephone calls to other leaders in the region followed. This demonstrates a change in priorities from his predecessors, for whom the Palestinian-Israeli conflict appeared well down the agenda, to be dealt with at a later stage in their presidency.

The importance Obama seems to be placing on tackling the conflict was borne out by his swift appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy to the region. Mitchell, an Arab-American and former senator, is a familiar and well-respected face in the Middle East. With barely a week in the post, he has been despatched to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders to agree a modus operandi to revive the stagnant peace process.

The word on the ground is that that the talks that began in Cairo on 25 January will need nothing short of a miracle to reconcile Hamas and Fatah. Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority (nominally the government of all the Palestinian territories, but whose writ only runs in the Fatah-dominated West Bank) looks the weakest among the parties involved in the conflict. To revive his standing, Abbas has invited Hamas to join in an internal Palestinian dialogue, but Hamas is sceptical. It believes that the PA may try to make political capital out of the current situation in Gaza, whose destruction is on a scale which its inhabitants have never experienced even in their bloody history.

In Al Zaytoun, a neighbourhood east of Gaza City, 23 members of the Dayeh family were killed when the four-storey building they shared was bombed at dawn on 6 January. When Mohammed, Rida and Amer, the survivors, tried to locate their relatives among the debris, they made the grim discovery of four children in one apartment who had died alongside their mother, and the body of one of their brothers.

Abdul Rahman Jarrah, a Palestinian student from Jabaliya camp north east of Gaza City, put on his uniform and picked his way through the wreckage to Al Fakoura UN Relief and Works Agency school last Saturday. This was the first time that Abdul, along with half a million of Gaza's schoolchildren, was able to attend school after an almost month-long closure forced by the hostilities. When Abdul took his usual place, he found three empty seats beside him. One was at the desk he used to share with his best friend Isam - who lost his life when an Israeli tank fired a shell at his house.

In this period of fragile truce between Israel and Hamas, what prospects lie ahead for the Palestinians? Both in the West Bank and in Gaza, they are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the talks. Also on the agenda is for Hamas and Israel to agree a prolonged ceasefire of at least a year to give the international community and the fledgling administration in Washington space to restart the stalled peace process.

Walk anywhere in Gaza and the impression one gets is that the Hamas government is still a force to be reckoned with. It shows no signs of losing its grip on this tiny 25-mile by 6-mile strip of land. The Hamas infrastructure that the Israeli army claims to have destroyed was, for the large part, government buildings belonging to the Palestinian Authority - the majority of which were rebuilt in 2002 with European taxpayers' money as infrastructure for the future Palestinian state, for which even an airport was built in the optimistic days of the late 1990s.

At the time of the ceasefire, Hamas indicated it would use every means at its disposal to ensure a constant flow of weapons. The international community is equally determined they will not succeed. An armada of ­European ships has been sent to police the local coastlines, as the Red and Mediterranean seas are obvious smuggling routes from Iran, a long-term backer of Hamas. An American naval vessel has already intercepted one ship bearing a cargo of Iranian weapons. On land, an underground network of tunnels provide what Israel believes is Hamas's primary weapons smuggling route.

B­ut Hamas will never lack either the means or the ingenuity to acquire weapons. Even Israeli army storage facilities are a source. Members of the Israel Defence Forces have been charged with stealing weapons and selling them to middle men who then pass them to Palestinians. This “co-operation” became increasingly audacious during the intifada – Israeli criminals would use fork-lift trucks to lift stolen cars over the security fence that surrounds Gaza, and then claim insurance money for the “stolen” cars.

Commanders of Hamas's military wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam brigades, insist that even if smuggling routes are blocked they are now ­capable of manufacturing weapons themselves, as large numbers of their personnel have been trained in arms technology abroad, particularly in Iran, since they took control of Gaza in June 2007. Presently, Hamas's missiles have a range of 10-50km, but the group's leaders believe it is only a matter of time before their rockets will be able to reach the Israeli capital, Tel Aviv.

Thus far Hamas has succeeded in glueing the movement together, although its opponents are pinning their hopes on the possibility of a rift between the Gaza leadership and that based in Damascus, led by Khaled Mishal. The large numbers of uniformed police who returned to Gaza's streets following the Israeli withdrawal signalled that the movement has preserved its ­essential units, which are currently run from makeshift offices in tents and vehicles near the destroyed government buildings. (Despite the large numbers of Gazans killed, the military wing spokesperson Abu Obeida claims only 48 Hamas fighters were lost in action, partly due to their tactics of working in small units of just two or three fighters.) Critics argue that the confrontation with Israel failed to match the rhetoric of Hamas leaders who promised to turn Gaza's backstreets into a graveyard for Israeli forces. But it is clear that Hamas has been strengthened as a movement, and it is also enjoying unequivocal support from the influential Muslim Brotherhood, whose wings are active throughout the Middle East and Muslim Africa.

The international community does not recognise it as the government in Gaza and so will not support it financially. With the tightening of Gaza's border with Egypt (to prevent weapons smuggling), and the possibility of another Israeli attack if Hamas rockets continue to rain down on its southern towns and cities, the group could find itself starved of funds. Rebuilding the destroyed infrastructure and homes will cost around $2bn. Any delay in this reconstruction will generate anger among the demoralised Palestinians of Gaza, but the Hamas purse-strings may not stretch to cover so high a figure. Furthermore, although Palestinian wrath is largely aimed at Israel in the wake of the incursion into Gaza, there are some who have had enough of Hamas, whose actions since taking over the government have not brought peace or prosperity to its people.

H­amas cannot turn back to championing a military struggle and encouraging suicide bombings. Acceptance of a ceasefire would give the movement breathing space to assess what is going on in the wider region. Its large and influential neighbour to the south, Egypt, does not recognise the Hamas-led government. Apart from the fact that it has a treaty with Israel, Egypt has long had internal problems with the Muslim Brotherhood – from which Hamas sprang. But it has good relationships with Syria and Iran, neither of which recognise Israel, and it is now looking northwards.

Warm relations exist between Hamas and Turkey's government, led by Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He has managed to maintain his country's membership of Nato and its aim to become part of the European Union, while still espousing Islamic values. An "Erdoganisation" of Hamas could soften its standing in the eyes of the international community. Erdogan's party is, after all, aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, but he enjoys a healthy relationship with Israel.

What will Hamas's future hold? It may elect to remain as a resistance movement and, therefore, as a pariah in the eyes of western capitals. Or it may agree to be more flexible to aid a future political settlement. It will certainly be pressured to change its ways to become more in step with the international community. But the west, Israel and Barack Obama also need to change their thinking when it comes to dealing with Hamas. As long as the Islamic movement represents a large part of the Palestinian people at the ballot box, the west and Israel will have to accept it, for whatever it is. Hamas is not going to melt into the background, and nor will any future Israeli military action succeed in eradicating it. That is one thing of which we can be sure.

Zaki Chehab's book "Inside Hamas: the Untold Story of Militants, Martyrs and Spies" is published by I B?Taurus (£17.99)

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling

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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.”

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

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.