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The Boris audit: the man who would be king

From the Bullingdon Club to City Hall, Boris Johnson has left his mark. But does he have what it takes to be the next Tory leader? We ask five experts to appraise his life, career and talent

Boris at Oxford

By Mark Field

The Boris phenomenon is nothing new. Three decades ago, when we were both undergraduates at Oxford, he cut an unmistakable dash. There was that ever-present shock of blond hair, of course. And although photographs of the time show a rather slimmer model (I fear that applies to us all . . .) he always seemed sturdily well built.

Boris Johnson’s cheerful charisma has meant that he has always been able to attract camp-followers. Although questions were raised even then about his bumbling buffoonery, his path to the presidency of the Oxford Union was assisted by a coterie of able allies, as was the road to the editorship of the Spectator (“like entrusting a Ming vase to an orang-utan”, as one wag described
it) and to the mayoralty of London. Somehow, buzzing around Boris, there always seem to be many talented men and women, strong at the organisation and administration where he is so weak, just clamouring to be a member of his gang.

At Oxford they were “my stooges”, as he christened them, not unkindly. Whatever scrape he seemed set to be undone by, there always seemed to be help at hand. From Darius Guppy to Toby Young, among countless others, mutual favours have been done and returned over the years – all part of a pattern that began in earnest during those halcyon university days.

He has always been a humorous and engaging orator. Close your eyes listening to Boris today and you could easily be transported back 30 years. That said, if you read a transcript . . . well, it’s pure gibberish.

I am sure it was no great loss to him (nor, in truth, to me) that Boris Johnson and I spent most of our university days in different social circles. His social life in term time revolved around the Oxford party scene – but the bright lights of London were never far away, especially during the vacation. He frequented the Gridiron and, more notoriously, the Bullingdon, clubs that were the mainstays of all-male eating and drinking activity. “The Grid” (chaired in a later undergraduate generation by David Cameron) was a small set of rooms at first-floor level in the centre of Oxford and it ran a little like Pratt’s or the Beefsteak in London’s clubland. It was an invitation-only establishment, predominantly the haunt of former pupils of the major public schools. It also had a legendary (and probably erroneous) reputation in the Oxford Union as possessing a huge block vote, which Boris naturally was well placed to exploit.

Our paths, perhaps predictably, crossed in the world of student politics. Boris won the presidency of the Union, but only at the second time of asking. His first attempt was beset by shambolic disorganisation; he learned to be more organised and on his second run won the prize by one of the largest margins on record. He rarely makes the same mistake twice.

I guess Boris might easily have followed the same path as other similarly well-connected Oxford undergraduates of our generation, into the City of London. Many leading figures in today’s investment banking and hedge-fund world were at Oxford in the mid-1980s – although few might have imagined how lucrative a career this would become. For Boris, however, fame was always the spur. It was clear to us all then that in some way he was heading for a prominent, high-profile role in public life.

Not that it was immediately obvious that he was going to be an MP . . . or a Conser­vative one, at least. Although that era was (with hindsight) the zenith of Thatcherism, a strong attachment to the Conservative Party was rarely a great vote-winner at the Oxford Union. This was compounded by the fact that Boris was at Balliol College, which has long had a left-of-centre reputation. While all leading Union candidates grubbed around for votes within factions of the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA), whose supporters were invariably also Oxford Union members, the clear impression many of us had of Boris was that his politics were centre-left with a tinge of environmentalism. I cannot imagine how such a reputation was cultivated . . .

It was only in the early 1990s, when reading his robust Eurosceptic polemics from Brussels in the Daily Telegraph, that I realised where his party political allegiances truly lay. There was always something of the contrarian about him – and even now I wonder whether this may have been a rather deliberate attempt to stand out from the run-of-the-mill Brussels correspondents faithfully reporting the goings-on at the European Commission and Parliament. 

Mark Field is the MP (Conservative) for the Cities of London and Westminster

 

Boris the man

By Sonia Purnell

So, Boris Johnson has broken a solemn promise yet again – only this time not to his long-suffering wife, Marina. He has ratted instead on eight million Londoners, breaking his pledge not to stand as an MP at next May’s general election while continuing to draw a salary as their mayor.

Barring great upsets, the good burghers of Uxbridge and South Ruislip will have to make do from next May with whatever time Johnson has left over after running London, writing a weekly Telegraph column, promo­ting books and hosting radio shows.

It is arguable whether any of Johnson’s many and various paymasters will be awarded a “fair squeeze of the sauce bottle”, as the mayor himself has been known to put it. (Although there will no doubt be plenty of time found in the week for his inexhaustible campaign to become prime minister.)

Johnson has form on part-timing in full-time jobs. Back in 2001 when he first became an MP he allowed voters in Henley to believe that he would give up his then editorship of the Spectator. He told the owners of the Spectator he would not stand as an MP. He swiftly reneged on both undertakings, leaving both parties feeling cheated and short-changed. (A livid Conrad Black, then the Spectator’s owner, called Johnson “ineffably duplicitous”.)

Uxbridge Tories, take note: very few in his old constituency would want him back. Johnson was selected for the plum seat in 2000 after an anonymous smear campaign mortally damaged his two principal opponents. His general flippancy – and flip-flopping on such grave questions as the invasion of Iraq – led to several local party members leaving the Conservative Party altogether, and others spoiling their ballot papers in protest. Many more tired of his growing indifference to constituency issues such as the closure of a hospital.

The president of the Henley Conservative association, the late Maggie Pullen, said she was “devastated” at his selection, and although she found a way to work with him she never truly changed her opinion. As another long-suffering colleague once put it: “The closer you get to Boris Johnson, the less you like him.” Even his one-time local fans were angered by his decision to run for Mayor of London in 2008 without consulting them, while trying also to keep his parliamentary seat. Sound familiar?

In the heady “Sextator” days of Ruinart champagne and chesterfield sofas, Johnson was also busy breaking his marital vows. The reputation he won as a permanently priapic politician was nevertheless popular at the time with the young, the apolitical and the envious. Pictures of him slipping out of the Chelsea flat of the education journalist Anna Fazackerley – his trademark mop poorly disguised under a black beanie – made it all look like something out of a French farce. Only, as we know, the women in these escapades often end up hurt and hounded, and sometimes pregnant.

Even the extraordinary indulgence of voters, let alone Marina, has limits, as has been forcefully pointed out to Johnson by no less a figure than the Tories’ abrasive election guru Lynton Crosby. Any further revelations in that area, Johnson has been instructed, would result in his “f***ing knees” being “cut off”.

Now that he sees Downing Street as finally within his grasp, his lust for power appears to have overcome his lust for impressionable young women with swishy hair and plunging necklines. It is four years since he was last caught in the arms of another woman. It is even longer since that he notoriously tried to deny rumours of his philandering with Petronella Wyatt – whom he twice made pregnant – as an “inverted pyramid of piffle”. But what he said then should still trouble us now. It is acceptable, even desirable, he informed his party leader Michael Howard in 2004, to lie to the press.

More recently, in May 2013, Johnson’s “fitness for public office” was called into question by no less an authority than the Court of Appeal. Ruling that the public had a right to know about his lovechild by an art consultant, the judges decried the “reckless behaviour” he had shown in allowing at least two children to be conceived through various infidelities. Few can recall the “private and professional” character of any serving senior politician being excoriated so openly in a court of law, which ruled that his disregard for the feelings of others was so deep
that it constituted a matter of public interest.

It is this recklessness that frightens the establishment horses – and should frighten us. A John Major-era Conservative minister sums up a view common among his generation as “Johnson must just be stopped”. There are even rumours of a “bottom drawer” of material on Johnson for release by party elders, should he edge even closer to the big black door with “10” on it.

As editor of the Telegraph, Sir Max Hastings did much to further Johnson’s career. He in effect overlooked how Johnson had apparently agreed to help his friend Darius Guppy beat up an inquisitive journalist by supplying his address. He rescued Johnson after he was fired by the Times for making up quotations. He gave him the opportunity to make his name – and ultimately his fortune – by sending him in 1989 to report on the European Union in Brussels.

Johnson’s virulently Eurosceptic reports delighted Margaret Thatcher and spawned a whole style of creative journalism. But their growing detachment from the truth left his credibility shot among his peers (and, eventually, his bosses back in London). James Landale, now the BBC’s deputy political editor, wrote a spoof Hilaire Belloc poem beginning:

Boris told such dreadful lies

It made one gasp and stretch one’s eyes . . .

Since then his unworthy conduct – including trying to weasel his way out of paying up on a lost bet on the outcome of the 2010 election – has convinced Hastings that his trust in his one-time protégé was misplaced. He has since written that if Johnson makes it as prime minister, he will board the first plane out of the country.

Nor is Hastings the only one who has learned to distrust Johnson. In March 2011, the mayor was rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority, the official watchdog, for “damaging public trust” after releasing inaccurate public transport crime statistics. He was also criticised for numbers that “do not appear to stand up to public scrutiny” after repeatedly using questionable figures to support lavish claims of success for an initiative aimed at a youth offenders (which later failed so spectacularly that it was closed down).

In 2012, our prospective prime minister also claimed that most cycling accidents were caused by cyclists’ own law-breaking – an equally false pronouncement that was, eventually, grudgingly withdrawn. Other figures he has released on subjects as diverse as housebuilding and police numbers have proved just as spurious.

Trust in politicians – or the lack of it – has become one of the burning issues of our times. Voters, feeling lied to and let down, yearn to be able to believe in their politicians again. But Johnson, for all his claims to be an authentic alternative, is more the problem than the answer. 

Sonia Purnell is the author of “Just Boris: a Tale of Blond Ambition” (Aurum Press, £8.99). Her new biography of Clementine Churchill will be published next year

 

Boris the Tory

By Andrew Gimson

What kind of a Tory is Boris Johnson? No one has yet provided a satisfactory answer. His enemies veer between dismissing him as a clown and denouncing him as an evil right-winger. Neither has the merit of being true, and taken together they have the drawback of cancelling each other out. Bertie Wooster can’t also be Norman Tebbit.

Part of the trouble is that the question invites an ideological answer, and once you start searching for one of those, you become increasingly lost, and find yourself wandering through a forest of murky concepts, some of which may fit some Tories, but none of which applies to Johnson. None of the think tanks that have exercised such a strong influence on Tory thinking over the past 50 years has left the faintest mark on Johnson. He is not an ideological politician: does not crave the support of some theory that explains everything and can guide him as he devises policy. Nor is he a postmodern figure. It would be more accurate to describe him as premodern.

His imagination was captured as a boy by ancient Greece and still disports itself there, before the dawn of Christian guilt. While I was researching my biography of him, one of his oldest friends assured me that he lives in a world of gods and heroes. These gods watch over him, set him trials, test his courage and resourcefulness, establish whether he, too, has the makings of a hero.

Johnson’s own account of his love affair with the Greek world is more democratic than this. It was given on 4 September in his speech about Pericles to the Legatum Institute in London, which can be seen on YouTube. I have only just watched it, and can report that it is a tour de force. What a brilliant schoolmaster Johnson would have made: conveying his love of his subject in language so lucid and joky that it holds the dimmest listener, but so learned and penetrating that it stimulates the cleverest. He ended: “Let us keep . . . alive . . . that spirit of freedom that Pericles exalted – a spirit of democracy and tolerance and cultural effervescence and mass political participation. That is what we believe in. That is what makes London great. In the Thucydidean phrase, let us keep it as a possession for ever.”

These noble sentiments have the practical advantage of translating into a simple mayoral programme. London, he has been telling us since 2007, when he first decided to run against Ken Livingstone, is the greatest city in the world, and our task is to make it greater. A Labour or Lib Dem voter might be just as tempted as a Tory to endorse that line. Nor is there much that is specifically Tory about Johnson’s more detailed positions: his love of freedom might just as well be termed Liberal, and is certainly shared by many on the left. Johnson has called (like Pericles) for a tolerant immigration policy, and in 2008 he precipitated the resignation of a Metropolitan Police commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, whose response to the killing by a police officer of an unarmed Brazilian had been grotesquely inadequate. The mayor has also called for tolerance of bankers, because they contribute to the prosperity of London. He wishes for the same reason to build an enormous new airport (Pericles completed an enormous new harbour).

The answer to the question of what kind of Tory he is perhaps turns out to be that he is not a Tory at all: that he transcends party boundaries. Towards the end of October, Johnson will bring out a book, The Churchill Factor, about another Tory who never allowed party loyalties to confine his view of the national interest. Winston Churchill spent 20 years as a Liberal before rejoining the Conservative Party, and was happiest leading a wartime coalition that included Labour ministers, as well as various individuals to whom one cannot attach party labels. He expressed his hostility to mere party organisation at the end of his biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, whose career had ended in failure:

There is an England which stretches far beyond the well-drilled masses who are assembled by party machinery . . . an England of wise men who gaze without self-deception at the failings and follies of both political parties . . . It was to that England that Lord Randolph Churchill appealed.

And yet Johnson is quite clearly a Tory. However happy he would be leading a coalition, he is also loyal to his own tribe, and each year at the party conference he manages with a burst of cheerful, pugnacious, magnanimous, disrespectful, scene-stealing oratory to make his audience feel good about being Tory. Many of the rank and file love him.

So the question still arises: what kind of Tory? The best answer I have been able to obtain is from Lord Lexden, the official historian of the Conservative Party: “The Tories always need brilliant adventurers to provide excitement and charm in what has traditionally been a thoroughly dull party created in the image of Sir Robert Peel. Disraeli complained that none of his colleagues knew how to give a decent dinner; he enlivened the consumption of their dreadful fare with his coruscating wit and, until the sniggers became too great, with his outlandish clothes and jewelled fingers. He derived much inspiration from the originator of this vital strain in the Tory tradition: Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke – drunken rake, womaniser, inspired writer and riveting speaker – who worked tirelessly exactly 300 years ago to control events on the death of Queen Anne but lost out completely to his equally unscrupulous Whig opponents when the Hanoverians arrived.”

Lexden adds: “There are times when the Tories like to be led by their adventurers – Disraeli himself in the 19th century; Macmillan in the 20th. On the other hand, Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, having mesmerised the party for six years in the 1880s, came to regard himself as indispensable, blundered and was ruthlessly marginalised by the dullards. The long line of Tory adventurers has produced almost without exception clever men equipped for leadership but without any certain prospect of actually attaining it.”

Lexden is right: this is the tradition to which Johnson belongs. He a Tory adventurer. No wonder serious-minded people on both sides of politics cannot bear him and are desperate to find ways of discrediting him. He sometimes attempts, by long periods of sober behaviour, to allay their fears and prove how steady he is. But his attraction is that he is a cavalier, a freebooter, a man ready to fling himself with a cry of “All for one, one for all” into any fight that suddenly seems worth fighting. He may, like Bolingbroke or Lord Randolph Churchill, risk everything and fail. He may, like Disraeli or Winston Churchill, come through being dismissed as ridiculous and climb at last to the top of the greasy pole. We have no idea what will happen next, and that is one reason why he is so watchable. 

Andrew Gimson is the author of “Boris: the Rise of Boris Johnson” (Simon & Schuster, £8.99) and is a contributing editor of ConservativeHome

 

Boris the mayor

By Sadiq Khan

In the end, history judges politicians by their record rather than their words. And in the case of Boris Johnson, we won’t be needing the benefit of hindsight. Boris is a fantastic performer, whether on Have I Got News for You or hanging from a zip wire. His sense of humour and “unique” turn of phrase did much to make the 2012 Olympics the huge success the Games were. But when it comes to his record on London, too little progress has been made in tackling the challenges we face today, let alone preparing for those of the coming decades.

The list of Boris’s failures as mayor is long. He has done nothing to tackle the city’s increasingly desperate housing crisis. During his mayoralty, not a single major transport or infrastructure project has been started to help deal with our ever-burgeoning population. Our air has become significantly more polluted, with no plans to reverse this. He leaves London a city that is more unequal and divided, and in a worse position to meet the challenges of the future than when he found it.

Perhaps the single most notable record of Boris’s six years as mayor has been the huge rise in inequality in the capital. London is home to more millionaires and billionaires than any other city in the world. The number of millionaires has increased by almost 60 per cent since 2008. This is not in itself a bad thing – but, at the same time, poverty has rocketed. An unbelievable one-third of Londoners now live in poverty – and two-thirds of them are in work. On Boris’s watch, London has become a city in which the wealthy have got even wealthier, enjoying the best food, culture and arts in the world, while most Londoners have been left behind, squeezed between falling real wages and fast-rising costs.

An important cause of the rise in inequality is London’s housing crisis. It’s not merely that home ownership is now out of reach for the vast majority of Londoners but, increasingly, so is renting. Housebuilding has fallen to the lowest level since the 1920s. The supply is well short of what we need to keep up with population growth, let alone meet the backlog. The mayor has given developers a free pass on building affordable homes as part of new property schemes – and local authorities are getting a worse deal as a result. He has increased the definition of “affordable” rent to 80 per cent of the market rate: not really affordable at all.

It’s not just the cost of housing that has risen. The cost of a Travelcard for zones one to six has increased by £440 since Boris became mayor. Tube fares have gone up by way above inflation every year. If the increased revenues were being used to build new infrastructure, that would be justifiable, but not a single important infrastructure project has been started. This has been particularly damaging for the poorest Londoners, who have had to move further and further out, due to rising house prices.

London’s population is growing faster than ever; it is poised to increase by the same number as the combined populations of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast in just over a decade. With our Tube and bus network already operating at capacity, we need new infrastructure to cope. Yet nothing has happened under Boris. Ken Livingstone delivered Crossrail, due to open in 2016, but in six years no progress has been made on Crossrail 2. Plans to build much-needed river crossings in east London have been cancelled, restricting economic development in the poorest part of London and reducing transport capacity across the city. Instead, millions of pounds and six years has been wasted on a series of vanity projects that have done nothing for Londoners: a cable car that no one uses, a new fleet of buses that take fewer passengers but are more expensive, and a garden bridge that isn’t needed.

In many ways, Boris Johnson’s time as mayor shows the limits of a laissez-faire approach to government in the modern world. If you don’t do anything, then simply nothing happens. 

Sadiq Khan MP is the shadow minister for London

 

Boris the writer

By Leo Robson

Taken at face value, Boris Johnson’s prose suggests a fool. Closer inspection reveals a cynic. His journalism, mostly written between the late 1980s and the early 2000s, was designed to make him appear honest and serious about such topics as the racism of the EU, the London housing market, the virtues of tolerance, Bill Clinton, the Balkans. But there came a point, around the turn of the millennium, when honest and serious became the things Johnson least wanted to be, or wanted to appear to be, the distinction getting hazier as time went on. Changes in his prose formed part of a broader programme of manicured buffoonery, “Boris” being an invention of the page as much as the screen.

Before long, he was a specialist in writing sentences such as this: “I know that there will be some who read this page – high, sacerdotal intellects – who feel that the hot seat of Have I Got News For You is not the place for an homme sérieux.” Johnson’s ploy, here as elsewhere, is to hide his own seriousness by mocking other people’s (their “sacerdotal intellects”), while maintaining a pretence of ironically adopting habits – in this case, the use of foreign phrases – to which he is genuinely inclined.

A fear, not exactly of the serious, but of intellectualism, underpins the feigned vagueness behind: “It is, I believe, what Jung would call an archetype . . .” It is phrased in such a way as to suggest that, while we might be able to paraphrase with unabashed confidence the thinking of Plato or Edmund Burke, you never can tell what these modern Continental thinkers are on about. This is a man afraid and ashamed of his own intelligence, desperate to make it something friendlier.

It’s a complicated conflict or con trick, as Johnson is aware, even if awareness is as far as it goes. In his dexterous though hardly inspired satirical novel Seventy-Two Virgins (2004), the American assistant to an MP notes how her boss will give “an intelligent answer” and then “throw it all away with some flip aside”. Her accusation is one of “moral evasiveness . . . she couldn’t help wondering about his IDEALS. His VALUES. His CORE BELIEFS.” Baffled, she wonders: “Just what kind of a Conservative was this guy, anyhow?” Later in the novel, a French diplomat trained in “the ancient art of . . . arguing for whatever side of the case he happened to be on” finds his voice suddenly “taking on the choky timbre of absolute sincerity”. (Typically, the case sincerely made is pro-American.) That Johnson himself never chokes, preferring a weightless fluency, is partly acknowledged in a note appended to his jaunty 1999 interview with the war criminal Željko Ražnatovic, reprinted in Johnson’s anthology Have I Got Views For You: “I feel embarrassed about the tone.” The Boris tone isn’t exactly a product of his political ambition but
it is a product of the same root cause as his political ambition, a need to be loved. If he is at all capable of being embarrassed by the failures of sense and taste committed in this quest, then he is surely a man in great pain.

It’s not often that Johnson experiences the need to apologise for not taking things seriously enough. Most of the time, he gets the balance just as he wants it. He cannot expunge seriousness altogether – a celebrity politician is still a politician – but nor can he let seriousness become so dominant that it squeezes out fun. An interest in the classical world, however geared towards the useful lessons it offers the present day, is something he tries to dilute. It is easily done. You simply drop into the lower register, as in the opening sentence of his schizoid book The Dream of Rome: “No one knows the exact moment when Publius Quinctilius Varus realised what a colossal idiot he had been, but when the barbarians on either side of him started uttering their war cry we must assume that the penny finally dropped.” (The war cry resembles “a roaring noise like a chorus of Rolf Harris didgeridoos”: a Times review described his style as “bright, breezy, populist and pacy”.)

The Rome book, first published in 2006, relies to an extreme degree on casual English, an approach that might be mistaken for a Reith-like educative populism but is really catering to the reader’s presumed view of the past as something in need of thawing. As an exponent of classical values, Johnson, in contrast to, say, T S Eliot, proceeds by putting a little-known fact in close proximity to phrases such as “get cracking”, “a popular fellow”, “What a shindig it was”, “imperial good-time girls”, “jolly cascade of bosoms”, “So-rree, Marcus!”, “letting the side down”, “he blubs because he is not yet a praetor”, “far too fly”. These mannerisms tail off after a hundred pages. Job done.

But colloquial language doesn’t just sweeten the pill. It also disguises it. The Dream of Rome isn’t coddling us into knowledge of the Roman empire, as it might seem, but into understanding why the modern EU, of which Johnson is a devoted enemy, could never achieve such unity. His Life of London, reissued as The Spirit of London after the Olympics, offers a Whiggish account of the sort of London enterprise and innovation that culminated in the happy city – Otto­lenghi provides the bread, Lord Coe the circuses – of which, at the time of publication, Johnson was incumbent mayor, with an election looming. In other words, Boris books are just the sort of campaign manifestos a politician might produce after he has forfeited the right to be taken at face value. They have become the most reliable means of assessing the focus, and size, of his ambitions. The next one’s on Churchill. 

Leo Robson is the NS lead fiction reviewer

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

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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.