In defence of hypocrisy

In this week's look at the philosophy behind the politics Martin O'Neill examines the importance of

Contrary to what most people seem to believe, it’s a very good thing that politicians don’t always say what they really mean. (This isn’t to say that they shouldn’t always do what they say, which is a different question entirely, but the answer to that may not be so straightforward either).

For example, the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility means that it behoves individual ministers to remain silent with their doubts about particular policies, not just for the good of their careers, but for the loftier reason of preserving the integrity of our mode of government.

Similarly, a commitment to the authority of party policy may necessitate the insincere defence of any particular policy, viewed as a legitimate means to a worthwhile overall end.

The structure of politics constantly puts politicians into situations where the right thing for them to do is to be less than transparently honest, or at least to be prepared to disguise what they really believe to be true.

Just as we would not want a politics in which politicians were always scrupulously sincere in what they say, so we should also not be too judgemental when politicians are prepared to – ahem – ‘borrow’ the policies of other parties.

It can, of course, be a political masterstroke to appropriate the policies of the opposition. But sometimes it is not only the most advantageous thing to do, but is also surely the morally right thing to do. Benjamin Disraeli may have thought that the 1867 Reform Act was the best way to “dish the Whigs”, but that hardly meant that extending the franchise wasn’t the best course of action, either for the country as a whole, or for the self-interest of the Conservative Party.

The theft of good ideas in politics isn’t particularly objectionable, as long as the ideas are good. After all, it would be strange if any particular party had a complete monopoly on imaginative policy ideas, or on legislative proposals that meshed deeply with the hopes and aspirations of the electorate.

Refusing to co-opt the best ideas of the opposition would involve a sort of puritanical intellectual preciousness, that prized ideological non-contamination above the virtues of enacting the best possible political programme.

My suggestion is that theft and insincerity are not always the sign of political vice, but can, on the contrary, be signs of considerable virtue. Given this, it is rather odd quite how powerful the charge of political hypocrisy can seem.

Everyone knows that politicians won’t always tell the truth, or at least won’t tell the full truth, and that there are things that they may do which they will not themselves be in full agreement.

And everyone knows that everyone knows this. Given that everyone knows that everyone knows this, accusations of insincerity or hypocrisy – or of being a “phoney”, to use the term with which David Cameron baited Gordon Brown at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions – can themselves be the very epitome of hypocrisy.

For such charges of hypocrisy or phoniness can carry with them the suggestion that the accuser is himself above these sorts of failings, or denies the need for himself or others to operate within the world of political accommodation and compromise, with its attendant rejection of pristine political sincerity.

Whether or not we want to grant philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s arresting claim that “sincerity itself is bullshit” (the conclusionary remark of his splendid little book, On Bullshit), we should at least surely admit that there can be nothing so hypocritical as protestations of sincerity. (In support of either Frankfurt’s claim or mine, one need cast one’s thoughts back only as far as the rhetoric of sincerity deployed by the previous Prime Minister.)

Now, what I’ve claimed is only that there can be good reasons for theft, insincerity and hypocrisy in public life, which is very different from excusing all cases of these apparent vices. Some instances of hypocrisy are so grotesque, self-serving and venal as to be beyond any plausible form of defence.

Of this type, last week granted a wonderful example in the revelations of the expense account lifestyle of Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, and as such the head of the National Audit Office.

A Freedom of Information request has revealed that Bourn spent £365,000 on foreign travel at public expense over the past three years, including junkets with Lady Bourn to (among many other places) Brazil, South Africa and the Bahamas.

He also went through an impressive £27,000 on dinners. What raises Bourn’s case above the standard case of an official with his nose in the trough is that, as head of the NAO, Bourn is the person whose public function is the protection of value for money in how the public finances are spent.

Here we have a clear case of objectionable hypocrisy of a truly stellar magnitude, so monstrous that it’s difficult to know whether to view it as farce or horror-show.

Anyone with any interest in standards in public life should hope that Bourn will be forced to pay back any part of those expenses that were not strictly necessary for the performance of his public role. (Which, one might plausibly think, is almost all of them.)

Gordon Brown’s recent problems are intimately connected with perceptions of theft and insincerity. But how far do these perceptions point towards deep problems of hypocrisy, like Bourn’s, as opposed to being political peccadilloes of limited significance?

Let’s start with insincerity. Brown’s insistence that the change in the election date was nothing to do with a panicked reaction to the polls certainly had the ring of untruthfulness. But what seemed especially damaging about these denials was that, by describing his reasons in terms of higher motives (wanting time to deliver on his vision of Britain, and so on), Brown created an uncomfortable juxtaposition of self-proclaimed high motives and all-too-obvious political expediency.

Just like John Major saying that it was time to get 'back to basics' or Blair insisting that New Labour would be 'whiter than white', there is nothing that primes the pump for perceptions of hypocritical insincerity better than the insistence that one has spotless motives.

If one does, indeed, act from the best of motives, this is something better shown rather than merely said. Similarly, the best way to make one’s actions appear to be nothing but spin over substance is to repeatedly insist that one has abandoned the former in favour of the latter.

The problems of theft are easier to deal with. Let us assume that political theft is fine if the ideas that are stolen are good ideas. The problem with stealing the Tory plan of changing inheritance tax thresholds is that this is simply a bad idea; or, at least, it’s a very bad idea if one has a commitment to social justice, which Brown claims to have. Moreover, to be done well, political theft has to done with energy and aplomb (here, Disraeli is a wonderful example), rather than awkwardly and in haste. It’s in no-one’s interests to be caught on the door-step with a bag marked ‘Swag’.

The story of Labour’s Pre-Budget Report, though, is a story both in one way better and in one way worse than that of a botched robbery. It’s better because, in fact, Labour’s changes to Inheritance Tax (IHT) were far less pernicious than the proposed Tory changes.

The Tory proposal was to increase the threshold for individuals to £1M. The headline-grabbing version of the Labour policy was that the married couple’s threshold had been increased to £600,000 (rising to £700,000 by 2010), which sounded as if Labour proposals were to double the IHT threshold, rather than trebling it as the Tories wanted.

But, as some Tories were quick to point out, Labour’s IHT changes were far less drastic, as there are already legal mechanisms (Discretionary Will Trusts and Deeds of Variation) that allow married couples to use each of their IHT allowances in full.

This means that, for the well-connected and well-advised, the de facto married couple’s IHT threshold was already £600,000; in effect, the PBR simply made it the case that every couple’s IHT threshold was the same, whether they had access to pricy legal advice or not.

It is plausible to assume that the distribution of financial and legal expertise within society tracks social class rather assiduously, and so the small print of Labour’s IHT reforms actually reveals them to be mildly redistributive, at least insofar as the children of a working class couple whose house is now worth more than the IHT threshold are no longer disadvantaged relative to the children of a couple who have a solicitor in the family.

Once things have settled down, and if clear thinking prevails, one may also hope that Labour really have “dished the Tories” on this issue, insofar as what the Tories are now campaigning for is a de facto married couple’s IHT allowance of £2M, which will be of any additional benefit only to that tiny proportion of couples who are likely to pass on more than £700,000 in capital.

That was the good news. The bad news is twofold. Firstly, given the many confusions that seem to exist in many people’s thinking about IHT, most people won’t notice the good news. The Tories may well remain “undished” among an electorate who don’t realize that the dispute is now simply over how to treat the seriously wealthy. The second bit of bad news is much worse.

It is that, whatever the real, concrete policy details regarding differences between Labour and the Tories on IHT, the moves made in the PBR have allowed the Tories to set the terms of the debate on the politics of taxation. If Labour had the courage of their convictions, they could make arguments about the fairness of IHT which would relocate the political battleground. Here, a recourse to political sincerity might actually prove to be surprisingly good politics.

Some forms of theft and insincerity may be politically expedient in the long run, but refusing to speak the truth about social justice and taxation cannot possibly be a sustainable long term strategy for a party (and leader) who sincerely believe in progressive goals of fairness and equality. And forms of political insincerity that are just bad politics have nothing to be said for them whatsoever.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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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.

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“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.