Time out with Nick Cohen

Why Kate Barker, the bogey woman, who wants to build over the green belt might just create a country

The basics any government has to provide if it hopes to be popular are food, water, security and shelter. Food is so cheap that obesity is common among the poor, while Marie Antoinettish fads for organic and against GM food insult the world's hungry while amusing the wealthy. As floods engulf the southern lowlands, water is hardly a problem at the moment, although the unpredictable effects of global warming may make it so one day. Whether you believe the fall in the official crime figures is genuine or not, no one, not even Daily Mail readers, believes that life is as insecure in Britain as it is in Iraq or South Africa. But the cost of shelter is so exorbitantly high that decent housing has switched from being an essential to a luxury.

It is a sign of how the middle-aged and middle class dominate public life that the house-price inflation of the past decade was celebrated for so long by the property sections of the press. Real prices have doubled to seven times the average wage since Labour came to power. The average first-time buyer is having 19 per cent of his or her income taken up with repayments - and in London and other hot spots he or she is spending far more. People have taken extraordinary gambles - borrowed six times their salary, committed themselves to 50-year mortgages and burdened themselves with "interest-only" loan payments that leave the capital untouched - simply to get into an apparently unstoppable market.

Many pressures have forced the Brown government to say "enough" - including the pressure on MPs from desperate constituents - but chief among them is the work of Kate Barker, a jolly economist with old-fashioned priorities, who more than anyone else has rammed home the scale of the crisis. To simplify in a manner that would appall her, Barker said that to get any kind of sanity back into the market Britain needs to build a minimum of 70,000 and a maximum of 120,000 additional homes a year. We must also build thousands more social homes - the number of which has actually declined by 9 per cent under a Labour government. If providing private and public housing means building on the green belt, so be it. If it means overriding local authorities and local objections, that's tough.

For a mild-mannered member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, these are radical recommendations that will transform England, and Barker has come to terms with becoming a bogey woman. A strange alliance of environmentalists and Tories accuse her of wanting to concrete over flood plains and thus ensure a repeat of the misery of the past few days. She is getting used to receiving "a large and often rather aggressive postbag wrongly accusing me of bringing a destructiveness equal to the Luftwaffe".

We share a pot of coffee in the Bank and she reflects on her transformation from a backroom adviser to business and governments to a public figure. Her work itself was a transformation. Gordon Brown was worried about the housing market long before the media caught up with him, but the Treasury's original concern was about monetary not social policy. Brown's question to Barker was whether the national obsession with property and membership of the euro were incompatible. Changes in the price of mortgages set by central bankers could have vast and unintended effects on the British economy. Low interest rates in the eurozone could fuel asset bubbles and consumer spending splurges - of the type we have been living through. High interest rates could trigger a wider recession - of the type we may soon be living through.

Target of abuse

But the longer Barker looked at the housing market, the more she worried about the poor stuck on council house and housing association waiting lists, the families stuck in mean and cramped flats and couples who want to have children but can't afford the space to house them. "I decided we had to increase the housing supply," she says.

This simple and humane thought has made Barker the target of vitriolic abuse and not only from letter writers to Threadneedle Street. Friends of the Earth dressed up an essentially reactionary assault on her in the modish language of anti-corporatism. Barker was the tool of her old employer, the Confederation of British Industry, its officers alleged; blindly following the boss class's agenda to "elevate the needs of businesses and the goal of economic growth at the expense of the environment and the views of the public".

One of the myths of British politics is that there is a united "voluntary sector". In truth, there is an unbridgeable divide between supporters of social justice and supporters of the environment. Senior figures in homeless charities privately told me they saw Friends of the Earth as a club for selfish nimbies. But Barker gives me a more sophisticated argument against the environmentalists. They talk, she says, as if a large chunk of the population of England doesn't exist.

"We're going to have a rise over the next ten years in England's population," she explains. "If we build less than adequately, people will be forced to share houses, there will be more overcrowding in London and we will have to do something draconian about second homes. But whatever we do, people will still be there. My critics say that extra homes will create more rubbish and use more water. But actually people will still be using water and producing rubbish if we build more homes or not. The only real environmental question is whether we turn more land over to building."

Like Friends of the Earth, Conservative commentators, notably on the Daily Telegraph, are as keen as the nominally leftish environmentalists on stopping building on greenfield sites, and they, too, accuse Barker of following a rigged agenda: but this time the alleged fixing of the terms of reference hasn't been done by the CBI but by Gordon Brown. They ask why he ordered Barker to look at supply rather than demand. If she wanted to know why house prices have shot up, she should have examined the effects of immigration and family break up. Surely, his instructions were a transparent attempt to cover up the failure of Labour to control Britain's borders and protect marriage.

Upsetting the locals

Barker was born in Stoke-on-Trent and has spent most of her adult life as a Home Counties commuter. For all her political influence, she is not a political animal and is unused to the accusatory nature of metropolitan politics. "Well," she says, when I put the Conservative criticisms to her, "the biggest pressure on housing is the increasing demand of elderly people for homes because they're living so much longer." She pauses and shoots me a look which reads, "What do you want me to do, call for euthanasia?"

The one charge against her which is undeniable is that she will further weaken our enfeebled local government. It's not that she's against planning; on the contrary, she says her critics get her hopelessly wrong when they say that she hasn't thought about the danger of floods and global warming. She has. But the effect of Barker's recommendations will be that local people won't be able to stop developments on their doorsteps. Too many councils, she tells me, don't want to see their towns grow because they don't see the advantages of growth. To which the only reply is that, of course they don't, because 80 per cent of tax revenues are taken by central government. Councillors may as well support local objectors because newcomers won't provide them with the taxes to improve public services. As I listen to her, I realise that she is trapping local government in a spiral of decline. But apart from having less local freedom, I want to know how else the England Barker and Brown aim to create will look.

First, she says, its urban areas will grow at the edges. Her main advice to the Prime Minister is to expand existing towns and cities to allow people to live close to where they work - although, as she grimly admits, the housing shortage is so great we may have to expand cities and build new towns as well.

Second, after decades of councils selling off playing fields, she hopes urban England will be greener. "I feel very strongly that you must have usable green space in cities. I'm always rather distressed about bits of green space that say 'No ball games' on them. I realise ball games annoy people but kids have got to get out. I'm very troubled by the sight of children with nowhere to play. That, I think, is a real social evil."

She then turns the question back at me and asks what England will look like if we don't follow her recommendations. There's now every incentive for people who live in big houses to stay there. Because they think prices are going to keep on rising and the supply of housing will carry on being constrained, there is, indeed, every incentive for the wealthy to grab as much housing as they can, regardless of whether they need it or not. If nothing changes, young people with money will carry on throwing every penny they can raise at property because they fear being left behind, while vast numbers who can't match their borrowing will suffer. Many will be poor, but if the poor can get into council and housing association homes, they won't be so badly off. Working- and middle-class families, however, will be caught in an hourglass property market. Beneath them will be council tenants, who may be in reasonable accommodation, above them will be the wealthy, who will certainly be in reasonable accommodation. They, however, will feel the squeeze.

"So if we don't build, housing will be incredibly unfairly shared. If we do, I think England will be a nicer place to live. The feeling of congestion that we all have is partly because we all live quite uncomfortably. I hope we can find an easier feeling and a less congested feeling, and create towns and cities where there is green space and room to breathe."

For all the dampening of the spirit the weather has brought this summer, that seems to me to be a vision of a country worth living in.

Nick Cohen is an author, columnist and signatory of the Euston Manifesto. As well as writing for the New Statesman he contributes to the Observer and other publications including the New Humanist. His books include Pretty Straight Guys – a history of Britain under Tony Blair.

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?

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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.