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Yemen’s state-funded thugs

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has played up the threat of al-Qaeda in Yemen to receive military aid f

One Friday in February, after the noon prayers, a straggle of Yemeni students and activists met in front of a small roundabout by Sana'a University and marched in solidarity with Egyptians who were frustrated with Hosni Mubarak's refusal to resign. Fewer than 20 people took part in this protest in Yemen's capital city; only two were women. Many carried pictures of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the late Egyptian leader and symbol of Arab nationalism. They called on the youth to awaken, and for the fall of Mubarak.

They passed throngs of people who ignored them or looked on bemused, carrying on life as usual and buying khat, the mild, stimulating narcotic that nearly all Yemenis chew. One onlooker asked another who the man in the picture was; a traffic policeman spat out that the demonstrators were sons of whores and nobodies. A Yemeni Red Crescent car followed them. I asked one of the first-aiders why they were there. "For them," he told me, gesturing at the protesters. A lone policeman on a motorcycle and two sanitation trucks full of young men with sticks and rocks also followed.

Abruptly, more security forces arrived. Some had clubs. The trucks, each holding at least 20 men, pulled up, ready to attack the demonstrators, who scattered. But Tawakul Karman, a leading female activist, smiled and shouted, "Down, down with Ali [Abdullah] Saleh!" - the president of Yemen since 1978.

The country Saleh rules is the poorest of the Arab nations. It is an uncomfortable amalgam of North and South Yemen, which were united in 1990. In the north, he has been fighting his own Zaidi Shia people, who seek autonomy, bombing their villages, displacing thousands, and then attacking the displaced civilians. In the south, too, he is at war with secessionists.

Saleh delegates control over much of Yemen to tribal sheikhs whose loyalty is tenuous. The country's powerful Saudi neighbours are deeply involved in its internal affairs; their money has purchased officials and helped to spread Wahhabi Islam. The president has used members of al-Qaeda to battle his domestic foes, yet he has also played up its threat to extort money from the Americans, who see the Muslim world only through the prism of the "war on terror".

As in Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain, Washington has had a close relationship with Yemen's dictatorship through the crackdown on terrorism. Barack Obama increased military assistance for Yemen from $67m in 2009 to $150m in 2010. Documents released by WikiLeaks showed that the US-backed Yemeni security forces, which were supposed to be fighting al-Qaeda, were targeting Zaidis instead. I have seen evidence suggesting that they are also fighting southerners, journalists and students.

Al-Qaeda is marginal in Yemen, its activities amounting to little more than the failed Underwear Bomber attack in 2009 and a couple of package bombs that failed to detonate last year. Yet action against it has provided a pretext for suppression of dissent. Terrorism might be a primary concern of the US government and the global media, but it is far from the biggest problem facing Yemenis.

Broken promises

On 2 February, in response to the revolt in Egypt, Saleh promised not to run again in 2013 (a promise he made and broke before the 2006 elections). He also said that his son would not succeed him.

In Sana'a, as in the rest of the Arab world, it was not the establishment parties that started the revolution, but the youth. On 11 Feb­ruary, the night Mubarak resigned, thousands of Yemeni students, academics, activists and citizens gathered at the university roundabout. They shouted: "One thousand greetings to al-Jazeera!" They wanted the powerful satellite network to focus on them, as it had on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.

As the demonstrators grew in number, they gathered in Tahrir ("liberation") Square, Sana'a. Most of it was blocked off by security forces and the tribal factions with which they were col­laborating. At least ten army trucks carrying dozens of men dressed as civilians soon arrived. Hundreds of reinforcements carrying sticks, knives, automatic weapons and pictures of Saleh turned up, too. These were the balataga, thugs paid by the state to crush dissent.

In a series of skirmishes, the balataga charged the youth, forcing them to flee, then sang, banged drums and danced. It was a symbolic victory: the regime had no intention of letting them occupy Tahrir, unlike in Egypt. "This is the problem," Karman told me. "They send these balataga with their knives. Since the Tunisian revolution, we have organised 11 demonstrations. The revolution is getting bigger. The [balataga] occupy Tahrir so we can't take it, but we will sleep there one day."

Big sticks

By this time, Karman had been arrested twice. Her brother, who was close to the regime and recited poetry at official events, got a phone call from Saleh. "You have to control your sister and put her under house arrest," the president said, adding an Arabic expression: "Whoever splits the stick of obedience, kill him."

“This threat and the arrests empowered the human rights movement and strengthened my will," Karman told me. She was aware of the WikiLeaks revelations about state security. "The national security bureau was founded after 11 September to fight terrorism in Yemen but it fights journalists and human rights acti­vists. It oversees terrorism instead of fighting it."

By mid-February, people from outside the activist network were joining the demonstrations. Among them was a mechanic, Muhamad Ali al-Muhamadi, who told me he did not belong to a political party and did not own a television. “I joined because I am against the regime," he said. "Humans are born free and are not animals to be guided by a stick."

On 12 February, Muhamadi joined more than a thousand demonstrators at the university. The balataga attacked them with daggers, clubs, axes and stun guns. Muhamadi was stunned several times.

The next day, there were larger protests in the capital where security men took pictures but schoolchildren and those in traffic cheered and waved. At least 20 demonstrators were beaten with batons and many were arrested. The journalist Samia al-Aghbari was attacked by guards who threw her to the ground. Her head hit the kerb and she lost consciousness. One security officer loaded his rifle to intimidate men trying to protect Karman. Others were stunned electrically, including Mizar Ghanem, 31, a student leader.

“We first came out on 16 January," he said. "Our first activity was to support the Tunisian revolution and call for the fall of the regime in Yemen. We are a peaceful youth and student revolution." This time, they could not reach Tahrir, so they renamed the square in front of the university Taghir, meaning "change".

By 16 February, the protests had spread even further. Hundreds of judges were protesting in front of the ministry of justice and new demonstrators had come out in response to a call by the student union. Police trucks dropped off dozens of balataga, who attacked the crowds with stones, chains and clubs and fired gunshots into the air. Policemen in plain clothes attacked the students. Amir al-Gimri, a medical student who is lame in one leg, was unable to escape. Police and balataga attacked him, calling him a traitor and spy, slapping his face and throwing him to the ground. They beat his head and legs with clubs as he lay helpless.

French leave

In the two months since the Yemeni protests began, the regime has responded as aggressively as other Arab dictators. But the people's fear seems to have gone and I feel that Saleh's days are numbered. That Friday in February, I was sitting in a taxi when a young man at an intersection threw a leaflet through the window. Youth organisations were calling for peaceful demonstrations on 17 and 18 February, it said.

It was 3pm and already the driver's mouth was full of khat. I asked him if there would be any demonstrations today. "He [the president] has to go," he said, "like in Egypt."

I fired questions at him. Did he expect a mass uprising in Yemen? "There has to be one," he said. How will Saleh go? "In a revolution." Does everyone think like this? "Yes." What about the army and security forces? "When there is a revolution, there is no fear." But what can you do when Tahrir Square is full of government supporters? "We'll remove them," he said, smiling and gesturing forcefully. "He has to go, to Saudi Arabia or France."

“God grant you victory," I said as I left. He smiled a big, green-toothed khat grin.

The demonstrations continue to grow, forcing the opposition parties to take a harder stance against the government and leading to defections of major tribal leaders. Meanwhile, the silence from the White House on the regime's abuses makes it likely that a post-Saleh government will be far less friendly to the Americans.

With the earthquake in Japan distracting the world's attention, the state forces intensified their crackdown over the weekend of 12 March, killing at least seven and injuring hundreds more. In a pre-dawn raid, the youth demonstrators camped by Sana'a University were ambushed with live automatic rifle fire, electrical stun guns and a gas that caused convulsions. The regime is now expelling the few remaining foreign correspondents covering the protests.

Still, there is hope here that Saleh's rule is near an end. Already, the optimistic chant is: "After Gaddafi, oh, Ali!"

Nir Rosen is the author of "Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America's Wars in the Muslim World" (Nation Books, £20.99)

This article first appeared in the 21 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The drowned world

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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.