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Hurricane Sarah

McCain's new partnership with a telegenic mother-of-five has dramatically shifted the dynamics and d

Hurricanes Gustav and Hanna may have brought hell to the people of America's Gulf Coast, but they came like manna from heaven for Senator John McCain, his brand-new running mate Sarah Palin, and the Republicans. First, McCain was quicker off the mark than Barack Obama by taking the decision to abandon political rallies, and he toured the affected areas instead - getting priceless footage on to the nation's television screens of a would-be president looking and acting just like a president should, receiving briefings and talking knowledgeably about the situation in press conferences and interviews. Obama, meanwhile, was stuck looking helpless in Lima, Ohio - 1,000km north.

Second, Hurricane Gustav made landfall in the early hours of 1 September, the day the Republican convention, destined to crown McCain and Palin, was due to begin in St Paul, Minnesota. You would have thought, four days after the Democratic convention in Denver reached a televised climax with Senator Obama's acceptance speech, fireworks and balloons at his $6m extravaganza in the Denver Broncos stad ium, that McCainites would have wanted every minute of live, coast-to-coast television they could get.

But a convention on Monday night would have been their nightmare: the scheduled speakers were none other than George W Bush and Dick Cheney - the last thing McCain would have wanted the nation to see was those two passing their mantle to him. Bush, mindful of his ineffable performance when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, stayed at the White House and immediately cancelled his appointment at the convention. So did Cheney, who was off - phew! - to Georgia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan the next day, making any appearance by him impossible.

Third, besides creating the illusion that he was taking charge of hurricane preparedness, McCain - emboldened, I suspect, by at last having a running mate of his own - seized the opportunity to make himself appear to be a thoroughly responsible decision-maker by selflessly cancelling the razzmatazz planned for Monday night. "This is a time when we have to do away with our party politics and we have to act as Americans," McCain said in an oh-so-respon sible broadcast that, had he been reading more fluently from an autocue and with the presidential seal in front of him, could have been coming from the White House itself. "We take off our Republican hats and put on our American hats," he went on. What a statesman!

Fourth, and in what may prove to be the most valuable of all the unlikely benefits Gustav and Hanna bring to the Republicans, the storms took much of the immediate public pressure off McCain's vice-presidential running-mate. I understand that the 44-year-old governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin - whose name McCain announced to a stunned world the day after Obama's fireworks - spent the hours closeted, out of the limelight, with party apparatchiks in St Paul, frantically trying to get up to speed on national and foreign policy issues for the hustings and, above all, for the much-awaited evening when she comes face-to-face with Senator Joe Biden at the vice-presidential debate in St Louis, Missouri, on 2 October.

At a stroke, McCain has seized much of the “change” territory

for himself

Inevitably, the dirt about Governor Palin was already flying. First came the national airing of "Troopergate," a saga that has already received wide publicity in Alaska: Palin has been accused of sacking the state's public safety commissioner because he refused to dismiss a policeman named Mike Wooten - Palin's former brother-in-law, who had divorced her sister and Tasered her 12-year-old nephew. Wooten has been reprimanded a dozen or so times since 2001, but because Palin herself has acquired a reputation for being incorruptible in a state that is notoriously corrupt, the story took off.

A calculated risk

Then, last Monday, came the "bombshell" that Palin's 17-year-old, unmarried daughter Bristol was five months pregnant - and was going to marry her high-school boyfriend, the baby's father. But in this peculiarly nasty campaign, the furore did not stop there. Blogs such as http://www.barackoblogger.com, as well as some in the mainstream media, starting putting out untrue allegations that Palin's own five-month-old son, Trig - who has Down's syndrome - is, in fact, the child of Bristol.

I wrote recently that Obama is taking a "colossal" risk in having Senator Joe Biden as his running mate, but it is nothing compared to that of McCain's risk when it comes to Palin. The two had never even met until February, when they had a 15-minute chat at a meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington.

But, despite the legions of Democratic and Republican operatives heading for Anchorage as I write, the McCain campaign insists that Palin's background had been carefully vetted, and that they already knew about Trooper- and Babygate; they say privately that they wanted both supposed scandals to come out early, so that manufactured furores in the final two months before polling day could be avoided.

The truth, though, is that McCain needed to do something dramatic to light fire to his campaign. Although he was holding his own against Obama to a degree many found surprising for a Republican in George W Bush's America of 2008, his campaign was not gaining traction. The problem facing him was that nearly all the obvious possible running mates were white men on the wrong side of middle age, such as former governors Mitt Romney (the choice until the last moment) or Tom Ridge - or even Senator Joe Lieberman, Al Gore's Democratic running mate in 2000 who has been drifting rightwards ever since and is now an Independent. The one remaining alternative was 47-year-old Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota, but he is not especially telegenic.

So a woman it had to be. McCain seriously considered Meg Whitman, the 58-year-old founder and former chief executive of eBay, and Carly Fiorina, 53, the former boss of Hewlett-Packard, but neither had the necessary political instincts. He also needed somebody as young as possible to offset his own biggest liability - his age, now 72- and finally came up with Palin, 44, whose popularity ratings in Alaska have just soared to an unprecedented 80 per cent. By choosing her, the McCain ticket magically morphed into one that was, on average, only two years older than Obama.

McCain's announcement, which came the day after Obama's acceptance speech and stole much of his thunder, changed the entire dynamics of the race. The Obama team had prepared McCain-Romney, McCain-Lieberman, and McCain-Pawlenty attack ads, ready to be broadcasted across the nation the moment the Republican nominee made his announcement. But even they, the fastest-moving and most efficient campaign organisation since Bill Clinton's took President George Bush Sr by surprise in 1992, were not at all prepared for Governor Palin.

In one single strike, therefore, McCain had altered the thrust and direction meticulously planned by both sides. The Obama campaign had settled on a strategy of hammering away until election day on 4 November with the insistence that a McCain presidency would merely be a continuation of George W Bush's, constantly using the slogan "McCain the Same" in their two-month blitz of ads.

Suddenly, though, that argument weakened when Obama found himself facing an opponent whose running mate - rather than the stodgy old Romney or Ridge figure he had expected - was a self-described "hockey mom" and mother-of-five from Alaska, known to her basketball teammates in school as "Sarah Barracuda". The argument that the Obama-Biden ticket alone represented "change" also suddenly weakened; arguably, the McCain-Palin ticket now represented an even more seismic change.

For his part, McCain largely sacrificed his "experience" and "not ready to lead" arguments against the Democrats by choosing Palin. She, after all, did not even have a passport until she recently applied for one to visit Alaskan National Guard troops in Germany and Kuwait, so McCain could hardly continue to campaign against Obama by citing his foreign policy inexperience.

At a stroke, though, McCain had seized much of the "change" territory for himself: instead of two men in jackets and ties taking over the White House in 20 January as usual, he could argue that he is offering the prospect of a man and a mother-of-five in a skirt doing so instead. He had also positioned himself to steal a chunk of the non-ideological female supporters of Hillary Clinton, who are still chafing bitterly at the way Obama treated the Clintons; the database of Hillary donors would be like Alaskan gold-dust should it somehow mysteriously find its way into the McCain camp.

McCain's decision has also made life much more difficult for Biden, Obama's designated attack dog: at 65, he is from a generation still not comfortable with the notion of gender equality, and the possibility that he could bully and/or patronise Palin in the vice-presidential debate is a very real one. That alone would badly damage Obama, especially with female voters.

All of which is to say that we now have a new 2008 election on our hands, its dynamics and directions dramatically shifted. The supreme irony in the debate about Palin's lack of "experience" is that, compared with Hillary Clinton, McCain or Obama, she is the only one to have had actual executive experience of running anything: two years as governor of the nation's sixth most affluent state which is twice the size of Texas. This is the reason Americans have traditionally looked to governors, rather than senators or congressmen, to be their presidents; either McCain or Obama will be only the third president in history to have gone from the Senate to the White House (the others being Warren Harding in 1921 and JFK in 1961).

It is too early to say what Palin's arrival has done to the persistently close poll figures; Obama's extravaganza appeared to have given him little or no bounce until 1 September, when CBS found him five points up from before the Democratic convention. That gave him an overall lead of eight points, the largest so far.

Daily tracking polls, though, still showed Obama with statistically insignificant leads, ranging from one to six points. These polls mean little, in any case, until each party has had its convention enthroning its candidate and his running mate, and the real, post-Labor Day battle has commenced. Which means that next week we will have an altogether better idea of just how much the unexpected advent on the scene of Sarah Barracuda is affecting this most bizarre of US presidential elections.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.
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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.