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Tom Holland on our island story: what England and Scotland share politically and morally

Magna Carta and the Declaration of Arbroath, Boswell and Johnson, Walter Scott and Disraeli – Scotland and England have long mirrored each other in many ways, says Tom Holland. 

Making of a myth: the Wallace Monument near Stirling commemorates the 13th-century hero of Scottish independence

 

The Tarbat Peninsula, a spit of land sticking out from the northernmost Scottish Highlands, seems an unlikely spot for a revolution. At its tip stands a lighthouse, built by Robert Louis Stevenson’s uncle back in 1830 after a deadly storm in the adjacent Moray Firth; a few miles south lies the tiny fishing village of Portmahomack. Most visitors there today are tourists, attracted by its picturesque harbour and sandy beach; but back in the mid-6th century it was the scene of a momentous experiment.

A band of ascetics, wandering enthusiasts for an exotic new religion named Christianity, arrived at the court of a local king. Simultaneously intrigued and suspicious, he granted them some unwanted land on which to found a community. “The Haven of Saint Colmóc” – “Port Mo Chalmaig” – was the first ever monastery on the coast of Easter Ross. For 250 years, until it was destroyed by a terrible fire at the beginning of the 9th century, Portmahomack was one of the most celebrated places in Britain.

That it is impossible to be certain who either the king or “Saint Colmóc” was reminds us just how dark the Dark Ages can be. Various shocking details were reported of the people among whom Portmahomack was founded. It was said that they had come from Scythia; that they fought naked; that they were ruled by women who kept whole troupes of husbands. Most notoriously of all, they were reported to tattoo themselves: a barbarous habit that had led them to being nicknamed “Picti”, or “painted people”. A people more hostile to the norms of southern lands it would have been hard to imagine. Even the Romans had given up trying to tame them. Yet where the legions had failed, a hardy band of monks had succeeded. An outpost of Mediterranean culture had been successfully planted in the farthest north.

The coming of Christianity to Pictland was part of a much broader process that ultimately united the whole of Great Britain in a common religious culture. Pagan rulers, when they submitted to baptism, were rarely signing up to the poverty and pacifism preached by monks. What appealed instead was the awesome potency of the Christian God. Membership of the Church attracted those with broad horizons and a taste for self-enrichment.

Yet conversion to Christianity was never a one-way street. At Portmahomack, the missionaries were influenced by native customs, as well as vice versa. The tradition of holy men possessed of a privileged relationship to the supernatural was not unknown to the Picts. Even the tonsure worn by the monks derived from the Druids. The very stonework of the monastery was incised with patterns already ancient when the Romans had first arrived in Britain. The decision to become Christian did not, for the peoples of Pictland, imply surrender to an alien power. Rather, it reflected a creative engagement with the world beyond their various kingdoms.

In the words of Martin Carver, the archaeologist who led the recent excavation of Portmahomack, “People were arguing about their future, choosing with whom to align, and expressing their agenda in carved stone or earth mounds.”

Today, when the people of erstwhile Pictland are once again arguing about their future and choosing with whom to align (albeit not necessarily expressing their agenda in carved stone or earth mounds), it is valuable to remember just how protracted the emergence of a united kingdom within Great Britain was. The Act of Union between England and Scotland was only the final waymark on a journey that had begun as the island was becoming Christian. The notion back then of unifying it as a single kingdom would have appeared laughable. The Picts, so the great Northumbrian historian Bede reported, were only one of four different groups of people who inhabited Britain – and these four peoples were in turn forever fighting among themselves. The English, according to tradition, were like the Picts in being divided up into seven kingdoms; the Welsh, despite ruling a huge stretch of western Britain, from the Severn all the way to the mighty rock of Dumbarton, were even more balkanised; the Scots, penned in to what is now Argyll, were so isolated from their landward neighbours by the mountains of the central Highlands that they ended up inventing an Irish ancestry for themselves. Great Britain in the early Middle Ages could hardly have been more fragmented.

In this way, inevitably, the process by which a bewildering multitude of fractious statelets came to be forged into twin united kingdoms, one in the north and one in the south of the island, was bloody and complex. Perhaps, if the Vikings had not descended on Britain, it would never have happened. The destruction visited on Portmahomack, which was almost certainly their doing, was repeated across the island. Whole kingdoms went down in flames. Where there was ruin, however, there was also opportunity. The kings of Wessex, the only English rulers to stand proof against the Viking firestorm, succeeded in fashioning out of the rubble left by the invaders a united “Angle Land”. Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred the Great, could plausibly claim to be Rex totius Britanniae – “king of the whole of Britain”.

Nevertheless, there soon emerged limits to the reach of the precocious new English state. The northernmost marches of Angle Land were remote from its centre of gravity in the southern lowlands. The great rock of Edinburgh, which had been in English hands since the 7th century, was lost to it soon after Athelstan’s death. So, too, some six decades later, was Lothian. A new power, fashioned just as England had been carved out of numerous toppled kingdoms, had arrived on the scene.

The forging of “Scot Land” was in many ways an even more remarkable achievement than that of Angle Land. By the early 12th century, three different groups of peoples, each originally speaking a different language, had come to think of themselves as “Scots”. Two of these, the Welsh and the Picts, had been subsumed so thoroughly into the Gaelic-speaking culture of their new overlords that their identities had vanished. The English-speaking population of Lothian, though, was to prove less assimilable – and with momentous consequences. It ensured that Scotland would be a kingdom of two languages, with Gaelic, in the long run, coming off second-best.

Similarly, the structures and presumptions of English kingship were destined to have a far greater influence on the emergent Scottish realm than the native traditions of the Scots. “It is almost as if,” in the impish words of James Campbell, the leading historian of the Anglo-Saxon state, “there are two Englands and one of them is called Scotland.”

 

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A less provocative way of making the same point might be to say that the two rival kingdoms of Great Britain, having emerged out of such similar circumstances, were in many ways the mirror image of one another. England and Scotland, despite their consistently bloody border, evolved over the course of the Middle Ages in ways that were strikingly parallel.

Both, after the Norman conquest of 1066, had a French overlay added to their respective mixes of native cultures; both, in the 13th and 14th centuries, began to define themselves in terms of an emergent sense of national selfhood. The age of Wallace and Bruce, which more than any other period of Scottish history has inspired Scots down the ages to see themselves as distinct from the English, also highlights something else: the strikingly similar ways in which the two peoples mythologise themselves.

Edward I, whose taste for hammering the Scots was what forced them into their desperate and ultimately heroic fightback, was also the first king with an English name since 1066, and a noted enthusiast for the Matter of Britain, as the legends of Arthur were known. This was not just coincidence. Edward’s predecessors, as befitted heirs of William the Conqueror, had preferred France to Scotland as a field for throwing their weight around; yet it was clear, by the time Edward came to the throne, that Normandy and the other French possessions of the English crown were gone for good. Scotland had become, as a result, more self-consciously English – but so, too, had the people it ruled.

Tellingly, the king who had lost Normandy, Edward’s grandfather John, was the same king who had signed in 1215 a document that would end up enshrined as the very foundation stone of English liberty: Magna Carta. Edward himself, desperate to fund his wars, was forced in 1297 to reissue the “Great Charter” in return for a new tax. Then, a couple of decades later, it was the turn of Scottish barons to pose as the defenders of their people’s rights. In 1320, with the war of independence finally won, they assembled at Arbroath Abbey and set their seals on a momentous document of their own. “As long as but a hundred of us remain alive,” so it stirringly declared, “never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule.”

A manifesto pledge understandably popular with the SNP today; and yet, in truth, the principles articulated in the Declaration of Arbroath were quite as pan-nationalist in their implications as they were nationalist. Like Magna Carta, it came to serve the people of a British kingdom as something truly precious: an assurance that no one, not even a king, should be above the law. Understandably anglophobic in tone though it was, its ultimate significance lay in ensuring that Scots and English would end up treasuring similar ideals.

This, as their fortunes became ever more entwined in the 16th and 17th centuries, proved fundamental in providing the peoples of the twin kingdoms with a genuinely British political culture. Increasingly, to many Scots and English, what divided them came to seem of less moment than what they shared.

Granted, this did not prevent the road to a united kingdom of Great Britain from proving almost as bloodstained as the forging of Scot Land and Angle Land had been. Even though the Scottish king James VI, when he succeeded to the English throne as James I, rejoiced in describing himself as monarch of “Magna Britannia”, the failure of his son to respect the fault lines that still divided the two realms later played a critical role in the descent of both into civil war.

Under Charles I, the Protestantism that was the shared legacy of the Reformation in the two countries began to set them at each other’s throat. In Scotland, Charles’s attempt to impose the Anglican Prayer Book precipitated in 1638 a particularly startling exercise in popular democracy, as congregations across the kingdom swore to uphold a “National Covenant”, “against all sorts of persons whatsoever”.

This, naturally, cast the Scots themselves as a Chosen People – a conceit so invigorating to Scottish morale that over the following decade entire armies of Covenanters ended up intervening directly in England. There, however, the challenge facing them was not how alien their southern neighbours were, but how similar. The English were no less prone to thinking of themselves as God’s elect than the Scots – and to such crushing effect that Oliver Cromwell, after his stunning victory at Dunbar in 1650, was able for the first time to impose a political union on the whole of Great Britain.

This particular dispensation, maintained as it was at the point of a sword, did not outlast the Lord Protector; and it took two Acts of Union, one passed by the English parliament in 1706, and one by the Scottish parliament in 1707, finally to meld the two chosen peoples, Israel and Judah, into a single nation. Unpopular as this was with many in both countries, a largely loveless marriage of convenience brokered by governing and commercial elites, the fact that the Union had been secured at all suggests the degree to which differences between Scotland and England – although still eye-catching, to be sure – had become increasingly skin-deep.

To those resentful of the nation that came officially into being on May Day 1707, it was a terrible false turn. That the contours of the constituent elements of the United Kingdom still remain so clearly distinct and defined, three centuries on, has encouraged some, particularly in Scotland, to cast British identity as a kind of knotweed: alien, invasive, positively demanding to be uprooted. It is this, no doubt, that gives to so much nationalist rhetoric its decidedly 17th-century flavour. Lurking behind many of the arguments in favour of Scottish independence lurks a presumption – sometimes left unspoken, sometimes not – that the Scots are a blessedly egalitarian and moral people, denied their chance to establish a social-democratic paradise only by evil neoliberals south of the border.

That Scotland, in reality, has become ever less keen on redistributive measures the longer its government has been devolved unsettles the true believers not a jot. The hold of the Kirk may have weakened; but as in the 17th century, so in the 21st: faith rarely derives from statistics.

If the Tories stalk the nationalist imagination as equivalents of Charles I, then the Yes campaign, with its fulminations against the iniquities of London bankers and the bedroom tax, has more than an echo of the Covenanter movement. There is mileage still to be had in appealing to the Scots as a chosen people.

Detail from Rowlandson's 1786 caricature of Johnson and Boswell walking arm in arm in Edinburgh

 

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Yet, for 300 years now, they – and the English and the Welsh, too – have had the chance to direct their gaze beyond the medieval limits of their respective kingdoms, and to work for the common good, not just of their own countrymen, but of all the peoples of Great Britain. So habituated have we become to our domestic stability that we forget just what an achievement it was, after the rack and ruin of the 17th century, to fashion an enduring peace across this island. In 1751, a mere six years after Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobites had reached Derby, and five after the slaughter of Culloden, the war secretary could stand up in the Westminster parliament and praise Highland soldiers as the best in the British army.

A decade later, the most celebrated of all Anglo-Scottish friendships began when James Boswell met Dr Johnson in a Covent Garden coffee shop. There is surely no more moving or joyous expression of what the Union has meant in practice than Rowlandson’s marvellous cartoon of the two men, Walking Up the High Street. The emergent Britishness that enabled the gruffly English Johnson and the twitchily Scottish Boswell to end up sharing a sense of commonality would be fundamental, too, in enabling their countrymen, so long divided, to change the world. Enlightenment and industrialisation; empire and the spread of the English language; the defeat of fascism and the establishment of a welfare state: the achievements of the United Kingdom, for good and ill, have been on a vastly greater scale than anything achieved by England or Scotland on its own.

Not that this is necessarily an argument for maintaining the Union in its present form; indeed, for those ashamed of what Britain got up to in her swaggering heyday it can easily seem an argument for breaking it up. “Ukania”, Tom Nairn memorably termed the British state: a Ruritanian ghoul unable to escape the taint of its early-modern origins. Linda Colley argued that with many of the raisons d’être that had initially contributed to the forging of a British identity – Protestantism, empire and detestation of the French – no longer what they were, “Britain is bound now to be under immense pressure”. Perhaps – except that the circumstances that brought about the united kingdoms of England and Scotland are no longer what they were, either, yet both are still going strong. The sharing of ideals and traditions that enabled distinct nations to be forged out of the once-independent realms of Wessex and Northumbria, of Pictland and Dál Riata, have long since become the common heritage of everyone on the island. The values traced by the English back to Magna Carta, and by the Scots to the Declaration of Arbroath, were mingling and merging even before the Act of Union. Right and left in Britain: both have derived their principles from all the corners of Great Britain. They bear the imprint of Walter Scott and Benjamin Disraeli; of Robert Owen and Keir Hardie. The fluttering of Union Jacks over foreign battlefields was never the essence of British identity – although, as the recent D-Day commemorations showed, even that has not entirely lost its power to tug on heartstrings. It is in our shared political and moral culture that all of us who share this island are most truly British.

That culture, however, is hardly something static. Even to articulate the phrase “British values” is to be reminded that the native traditions of Great Britain are no longer the only ingredients of our mongrel identity. A millennium and more after pilgrim monks brought Christianity to Portmahomack, other religions are now in the process of becoming British. The Picts may never have originated in Scythia, as they liked to claim; but today eastern Europeans in their hundreds of thousands have settled in Britain. English identity is already proving inadequate to cope with the scale of recent immigration; nor is there any reason to think that Scottish identity will prove any more absorbent, should similar numbers start to settle north of the Border.

British identity, though, is a different matter: more recent in origin than either Englishness or Scottishness, it is baggier, more capacious, less ethnically centred than either. “Not at all, mate,” Mo Farah said when asked whether he would rather have won his Olympic gold medal in the 10,000 metres for Somalia rather than Britain. “This is my country.”

By a profoundly ironic fluke, the invented Britishness that back in the 18th century sent English and Scots out from their native island to conquer much of the world now, in the 21st century, provides the United Kingdom with something incalculably precious: a national identity as well suited as any in Europe to the welcoming and integration of newcomers. Britishness may have lost an empire; but perhaps it has found a role.

Much will depend on whether the United Kingdom holds together. The decision on that, in the short term, rests with the Scottish electorate alone. Nevertheless, all those in the rest of the island who profoundly value their bonds of citizenship with the Scots, who would be distraught to see them become foreigners, and who believe that the referendum, far from separating us, may instead enable us to repledge our vows, can but watch on in hope. British identity remains what it has always been: a journey, not an end.

Tom Holland’s latest book is “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus, £12.99)

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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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.”

***

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.