“Teaching the British reduces the killing”

"I never tell people about my work. A lot of people have been killed for working with the British or

From the beginning of the war, the Ministry of Defence ran programmes to prepare British soldiers for the challenges of peacekeeping. Servicemen and women of all ranks were put through crash courses - usually of about two weeks - in the language and culture of Iraq.

Najma, aged 24, who moved to London in 2001, is one of a number of British Iraqis working with the army on such programmes. She and colleagues role-play as Iraqi civilians; though London-based, their work is not without dangers. Like her compatriots in southern Iraq who work with the British, Najma finds that her involvement risks her being labelled a traitor.

"I never tell people about my work," she says, puffing on a cigarette. "A lot of people have been killed for working with the British or Americans, especially in Iraq. One of my close friends went back as an interpreter in 2004. He was shot dead in less than two weeks."

A particular concern is the safety of her mother, who still lives in Iraq.

"Last year someone wrote an article on the internet saying that we're betraying our country and helping the enemy for the sake of money. They didn't mention names but they listed some people's initials. I got really scared. At the end of the day I have a family in Iraq. Even if I am safe here, they are definitely not safe there."

Najma insisted on meeting at a cafe in an area where no one would know her. She says she has been working for the army since early 2005, in bases around the British Isles and in Germany. I ask her if she had had doubts about helping people who had killed her countrymen.

"The first thought that came into my mind was: 'They are in my country; you can't change that,'" she says. "The only thing you can do is to try to help the situation. I thought if I could teach them a little bit about how Iraqi people operate, it could reduce the killing."

But she has had doubts. "Every time the situation changes, my opinion changes. Sometimes I think I'm doing the right thing. Then when I watch the news and see soldiers mistreating Iraqi people, killing people, it makes me wonder why I am working with them. I don't feel guilty, because if I did I would stop, but it hurts to see them doing these things."

She has always been different, she says. When she was growing up in west Baghdad, her male relatives gave her a boy's nickname, because she would run ahead in the street instead of walking behind them as they thought she should. She later determined on a career in the theatre despite the strenuous objections of her family.

Iraqis recruited by the army have to be fluent in English and must have recent experience of their homeland. They are paid £100 per day.

"It is hard work," Najma says, and it can be overwhelming. "Sometimes the Iraqis forget they are acting and get upset. They start to think that it's real. I once saw a girl doing an exercise lose it completely. She started crying and just couldn't stop. She was thinking about Iraq and everything that has happened there.

"My opinion of the British army hasn't changed from doing this work. They are trying to learn the culture and they're trying to understand the way we react to what they do there. I've heard colleagues say that they wouldn't work for the Americans who haven't bothered to learn simple things, and their way of treating people is appalling. For example, they don't knock on the door, they just break in. That is the Iraqi opinion of American people."

Najma won't be put off working for the army, and is determined to continue trying to increase understanding. The child who took the nickname of a boy in the streets of Baghdad still refuses to fall in line.

Days of war

29 January 2002: Bush names Iraq as part of the "axis of evil"

3 February 2003: Publication of "dodgy dossier"

14 February 2003: Hans Blix tells UN Security Council that Iraq is co-operating more

15 February 2003: In London, over a million march against war

17 March 2003: Bush gives Saddam Hussein 48 hours to leave Iraq; Robin Cook resigns from cabinet

18 March 2003: Commons votes for war; 139 Labour MPs rebel

20 March 2003: Invasion begins (far left)

9 April 2003: Statue of Saddam toppled (left)

1 May 2003: Bush announces victory

12 May 2003: Clare Short resigns from cabinet

18 July 2003: Dr David Kelly found dead after being named as source that war dossier had been "sexed up"

13 December 2003: Saddam captured

April 2004: Reports surface of torture, rape and murder at Abu Ghraib Prison in Baghdad (right)

28 June 2004: US hands sovereignty to interim government under PM Iyad Allawi

19 October 2005: Saddam goes on trial accused of crimes against humanity

19 November 2005: US marines massacre 24 civilians in Haditha

20 January 2006: Shia alliance emerges as winner of first parliamentary elections

21 August 2006: Bush acknowledges Iraq had "nothing" to do with 9/11

25 December 2006: After Christmas Day car bomb attack, US military death toll surpasses that of 9/11

30 December 2006: Saddam executed

10 January 2007: Bush announces "surge", proposing 21,500 extra troops and $1.2bn more funds

1 May 2007: Reports of death of Abu Ayyub al-Masri, Iraqi leader of al-Qaeda

1 August 2007: Main Sunni political group in Iraq withdraws from cabinet, plunging central government into crisis

16 September 2007: British hand over control of Basra to Iraq

Research by Edmund Gordon

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us

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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.