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Who will vote for Obama

It seems to be all over bar the voting but the final days of a presidential race can sometimes produ

This is the 13th presidential campaign I have followed, as a teenager and

as an adult, and the only previous campaign that generated anything like the same passion and enthusiasm was the first of those: John Kennedy’s in 1960. For many people, including myself, the excitement of this campaign is the prospect of an African-American president who could change the direction of his country, and perhaps the world, after the barren Bush years.

However, we should not allow excitement to mask reality. The Obama-McCain contest has generated a number of myths about America's electorate - and it has also generated the polling evidence to extinguish those myths. What is that evidence? And how far can we trust the polls that tell us that Obama is heading for an emphatic victory?

Here are four myths and the real conclusions that can be gathered from the poll data.

Myth 1: Less-educated white voters have deserted the Democrats because the party chose Obama as its candidate. As our chart shows, it is true that John McCain leads Obama among those Americans who never went to college - but so did George Bush four years ago. In fact there has been virtually no change in this group since 2004. The real point, therefore, is more subtle: Obama has failed to make the kind of inroads with the poorer educated that he has made among graduates. Within that group, for example, he has converted John Kerry's 11-point lead among those with postgraduate degrees into a 28-point lead today - a 17-point shift, double the national average.

The same shift can be detected among those whose top educational qualification is an undergraduate degree, where Bush led by 6 per cent in 2004 but Obama leads by 11 per cent today. Even if Obama has not done as well as he might have hoped among less-educated voters, he has more than offset this by his appeal to the college-educated, who make up 75 per cent of all US voters.

A similar story emerges when the data are sorted by income. Obama has maintained, but not added to, the Democrats' traditionally strong lead among Americans whose household income is less than $50,000 (around £30,000) a year. But he has wiped out the Republicans' previously double-digit leads on higher earners. A further shift to Obama in the final days of the campaign might see him achieve the improbable feat of winning more votes than McCain in $100,000-plus households.

Myth 2: Obama's support has suffered because many women voters, upset by the Democrats' failure to nominate Hillary Clinton, will not vote for him. Not so. Obama has gained more ground among women than among men. In Britain, women are usually slightly more conservative then men. But in US elections the gender gap is different. Men are more likely to vote Republican and women to vote Democrat.

This year, the gender gap, far from narrowing as the result of an anti-Obama female backlash, has actually widened. Obama now leads among women by 14 per cent, compared with McCain's 4 per cent lead among men.

Myth 3: Many Democrats won't vote for Obama. Well, some won't; but some Democrats always defect. In 2004, 11 per cent of Democrats voted for Bush. Almost exactly the same proportion this year are likely to vote for McCain. In contrast, slightly more Republicans, and significantly more independents, are likely to vote for Obama than they did for Kerry. Converts to the Obama banner far outweigh any deserters from the supposedly vulnerable base.

Myth 4: McCain appeals less than Bush to the religious right. In fact, McCain's lead among the four in ten Americans who attend church at least once a week is actually higher than Bush enjoyed four years ago, as is McCain's lead among those who describe themselves as "conservative". Perhaps Sarah Palin has done more than we might expect to shore up the right-wing base.

In contrast, infrequent and non-churchgoers have swung Obama's way, as have liberals and, most importantly of all, the 45 per cent of Americans who describe themselves as "moderate". Among this vital group, Kerry's 9 per cent lead four years ago has been transformed into a 26 per cent lead for Obama.

On the other hand, some parts of the conventional wisdom are true. Obama really has won over younger voters. Four years ago, the minority of under-30s who bothered to vote backed Kerry by a modest margin of 54-45 per cent. Today Obama leads with this group by two to one. His challenge is to convert that latent support into big numbers of real votes.

Luckily, however, Obama can win without a vastly higher turnout among young voters. The next age group up - the 30-44 year-olds, many of whom have mortgages and young families and who are worried by today's financial crisis - have also shifted to Obama in a big way. Four years ago, they backed Bush by twice the national margin; today they put Obama ahead by twice the national average. Here is a huge election-deciding shift among people who can generally be relied on to come out and vote.

The shift among older groups is smaller. Among 45-59 year-olds, the shift is a modest (though still useful) six points; but the over-60s have proved resistant to Obama’s charms. They backed Bush by an 8 per cent margin in 2004, and look like backing McCain by the same margin on 4 November.

So, is it really all over bar the voting? Or could Obama still be denied victory by a late swing,

or inaccurate polls, or both? History provides two examples of the polls getting things badly wrong.

In 1948 the Chicago Tribune announced “Dewey Defeats Truman” – a paper Truman held up with glee when he won

So, is it really all over bar the voting? Or could Obama still be denied victory by a late swing, or inaccurate polls, or both? History provides two examples of the polls getting things badly wrong.

In 1948, the final polls showed the Republican challenger, Thomas Dewey, leading the Democratic president, Harry Truman, by 5 per cent. Initial returns on the night from rural areas seemed to confirm this, leading the Chicago Tribune to announce on the front page of its early editions: "Dewey Defeats Truman" - a paper that Truman held up with glee the following day when it turned out he had won, not lost, by 5 per cent.

One or both of two things went wrong: the pollsters' sampling methods contained a pro-Republican bias; and/or there was a late surge in support for Truman, for the polls finished their final interviews two weeks before election day.

In 1980, the polls predicted a close race between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan - when Reagan in fact won by a 10 per cent margin in the popular vote and a landslide in the electoral college. On that occasion, there probably was a last-minute swing. There was only one television debate between Carter and Reagan, and it took place a week before polling day. Reagan emerged the clear victor and assuaged the doubts of many voters that he was up to the job of president.

This was important, because the fundamentals were not on Carter's side. He was an unpopular president, the US economy was in trouble, interest rates were in double figures, and the US had been humiliated by Iran, which held 52 American diplomats hostage in Tehran. The late swing to Reagan was probably a case of the fundamentals finally asserting themselves.

This year, the fundamentals are on Obama's side, and polling will continue until the last moment. So, unless something extraordinary happens, a clear polling lead for Obama probably will translate into an Obama victory (even if a few voters are telling pollsters that they will vote for an African-American candidate when in fact they won't).

So am I predicting an Obama victory? Yes. Am I confident about this prediction? Yes. Every bit as confident as I was in April 1992 when I said that Neil Kinnock was about to become prime minister.

Peter Kellner is president of YouGov

The 2008 data for this analysis comes from YouGov-Polimetrix. It interviewed 26,000 Americans in order to provide a state-by-state projection for the television network CBS. Its overall voting figures - Obama 49 per cent, McCain 43 per cent - are close to the average of recent polls; the size of the sample has enabled us to look at different groups of voters in detail. The figures are compared with those from the 13,000 interviews conducted by the Edison/Mitofsky exit poll for the TV networks and AP news agency on the day of the 2004 election. I am grateful to colleagues at YouGov-Polimetrix for analysing the data for me and to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University for inviting me to study the presidential election

Peter Kellner was President of YouGov from 2007 to 2015. Prior to that, he worked as a journalist for Newsnight, the New Statesman, and others.

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas

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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.”

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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.

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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.