Grace under pressure: Jarvis on a tour in northern Iraq, where he was responsible for security in the critical Rumaila oilfields.
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From war to Westminster: is Labour's Dan Jarvis a future Prime Minister?

In 2007, Dan Jarvis led a unit of paratrooners in Helmand Province. Four years later, he became MP for Barnsley Central. Xan Rice meets him and asks: could he go even higher?

In 2007, four years before becoming a Labour MP, Major Dan Jarvis was asked to lead a company of 150 men on a six-month mission into Helmand Province in Afghanistan. His unit, mainly paratroopers, was part of the Special Forces Support Group, the newest wing of the UK special forces.

The full details of Jarvis’s task remain classified, but it involved recruiting and training local volunteers to serve in the Afghan Territorial Force, an elite unit charged with taking on the Taliban. Jarvis was 34 and highly experienced, having served in Kosovo, Northern Ireland and Sierra Leone and completed multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he knew this mission would be his most dangerous and challenging yet.

On a previous deployment to Helmand in 2005, as part of a small reconnaissance team helping the British army decide where to focus its efforts in southern Afghanistan, he had been able to walk through the streets and bazaars. Now, with the insurgency raging, the only way in and out was by helicopter. Jarvis’s unit would be based at a remote fort. In desert terrain littered with improvised explosive devices and mines, the men would travel long distances in Land Rovers lined with ballistic matting – “basically a reinforced car seat”.

“The level of threat was very high and the level of protection relatively low,” is how Jarvis puts it. It was the sort of mission he had dreamed of. “I had aspired throughout my army career to lead a company of paratroopers in these very difficult circumstances,” he told me. “It was a fantastic professional opportunity.”

But Jarvis was conflicted. Unlike some of the younger men on his team, he had a family. When he first went to Iraq, in 2003, during the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, it was only two days after his wife, Caroline, had given birth to a son by emergency Caesarean section. Now he also had a young daughter, born just days before he had returned from another tour of Iraq. Caroline was aware of the risks her husband faced; he had known ten of the first 100 British soldiers killed in Afghanistan. And she was fighting her own battle, having been diagnosed with bowel cancer the previous year.

“Quite a reasonable question to ask is, ‘Why the hell were you in Afghanistan at that point?’” Jarvis says. “It was because Caroline had undergone treatment for cancer and was in remission, and it was her profound wish that we would maintain as normal a life as we possibly could.”

Three years later, in July 2010, Caroline died from the disease at the age of 43.

The Helmand operation was as tough as Jarvis had expected. Vetting the Afghans was hazardous: the British soldiers never knew if people were coming forward for the right reasons. The “green on blue” attacks by Afghan forces on allied troops were just beginning. Jarvis also had to balance the military objectives with his desire to bring back all of his troops.

During the assignment, one Afghan soldier was killed and several others were injured. Some of Jarvis’s own men were badly hurt. But none died, which makes him immensely proud. “Those were formative times for me, frankly compounded by the constant self-doubt as to whether I should have been in that country,” says Jarvis, now a shadow justice minister. “It gives me perspective that I draw upon because, how ever tough things can be in politics, nothing will compare to that level of pressure and risk.”

In Jarvis’s constituency office at Barnsley Town Hall his staff joke about his fondness for military acronyms and mottos. When he writes RPE on a memo it means “relentless pursuit of excellence”. R&R is “ruthless and relentless”. “Ruthless with time,” Jason Keen, his press officer, clarifies.

I’ve arranged to meet Jarvis for a run at 8am on a late February morning. At 7.50am he is waiting outside the Premier Inn in the centre of Barnsley. “I thought we’d go out for an hour or so, a steady run,” he says. “One thing I must tell you is that it is hilly around here.”

Jarvis is training for the London Marathon, as I am. Or at least he should be. It’s only nine weeks to go until the race and he has managed a total of two practice runs. With the event due to take place just a fortnight before the general election, he would have been happy to skip it.

But since Caroline’s death, Jarvis has twice run the marathon for Cancer Research UK and it is the headline charity this year. Matching his time from 2014 will be hard, he says – he ran with his father and finished in three hours and 45 minutes – though he has no trouble answering questions as we run up a steep gradient. “You do 15 years in the Paras and you develop a bit of a mindset of getting tough at experiences,” he says. “There comes a point when the embarrassment of failure is much worse than the pain associated with trying to avoid failure.”

His lack of preparation is not laziness; he has little spare time. From Monday morning to Thursday night he is London, where he likes to be at his computer by 6am and finishes around midnight. Friday is a full day of constituency work in Barnsley and so is half of Saturday.

“I remember on my first day in the House of Commons [7 March 2011] a Conservative MP said to me: ‘The thing that you need to learn about this place is that it is only really a part-time job.’ I was pretty stunned to hear that and it’s completely not the case. You can potter around and do it as a part-time job if you want, but to do it effectively requires a huge amount of effort. I think people deserve that. I am not making any comment about whether I am effective or not. I think people will see that I put the work in.” (Three days later the Conservative MP Malcolm Rifkind is caught on a hidden camera saying he is “self-employed” and boasting about his free time.)

Jarvis arrived at Westminster as an outsider in both background and timing. He was not part of the Labour class of 2010 – he won his seat in Barnsley Central in 2011, replacing Eric Illsley, who had to stand down after being convicted of fraud for his part in the MPs’ expenses scandal. In doing so, Jarvis became the first person since the Second World War to resign a military commission to contest a by-election. Since then, his rise through the ranks – and in his standing among his peers on both sides of the House – has been swift.

Jarvis did not want to be typecast and so deliberately avoided being pushed towards defence and security. But he was eager to be challenged. After six months he agreed to become shadow arts minister, even though he says he knew little about culture. In parliament he drew attention for his robust defence of local libraries against the coalition cuts, and for championing the National Health Service, describing the excellent care his wife had received.

Jarvis is affable, relaxed and the same time deeply serious about his job as an MP and the concept of public service. Some things he professes to doing – such as a ritual pause to consider his constituents every time he steps into the Commons – could sound ridiculous, yet from him they feel sincere. “He comes across as a very real, authentic person, and that’s important in modern politics,” as Rory Stewart, the Conservative MP, writer and chair of the Commons defence select committee, who has worked with Jarvis in parliament, told me.

His value to his party is clear. Last year Jarvis edited a book called Why Vote Labour, part of a series explaining the main parties’ policies. And few Labour MPs can have knocked on as many doors as he has done in recent months. In January, he spent nine days touring 27 constituencies to assist the local candidates. It was a strong statement of loyalty and perhaps of ambition, too.

Writing at the time in the Telegraph, James Kirkup, the paper’s executive editor for politics, again noted the Tories’ respect for Jarvis and said he should be spoken of as serious leadership material. “How would the CCHQ attack machine approach a Labour leader who served his country in two wars? A man who is raising two children alone after losing his wife to cancer?”

The second line was incorrect: Jarvis remarried in 2013 to Rachel, a freelance graphic designer, and now has a third child. But the point was well made: Ladbrokes has Jarvis at 12/1 to be the next Labour leader, behind Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna. His ability to perform under extreme pressure may well be tested again before too long.

Military men are typically Tory supporters. The Conservatives have numerous MPs with army backgrounds, mostly with short periods of service. Labour has one – Jarvis – and with arguably the highest profile of all. (In 2011 he was awarded an MBE for military service, the only serving MP to achieve that honour during the Queen’s reign.)

Why did he choose Labour? It was not a sudden decision, he says. His parents were both Labour Party members; his father was a lecturer at a teacher training college in Nottingham and his mother a probation officer. They instilled in him the importance of public service. While still at school he came to the conclusion that he did not share Margaret Thatcher’s vision for Britain.

“The values of Labour are my values – the fundamental belief that collectively you achieve more together than you can alone,” he says. “The belief in the value of fairness, equality, the desire to stand up for the many, not just the few – giving representation to those without a voice.”

Jarvis became a member of the Labour Party while studying international politics at Aberystwyth University. By then he had already decided to become a soldier. Nobody in his family had served in the armed forces, so it was a “minor act of rebellion”, he says now. “I worked out early on that what you do for a job is an important part of your life. So do something you think is worthwhile and that gives you an opportunity to make a contribution.”

The army appealed to his sense of adventure. As one holiday approached at university, he and his younger brother, Rob, looked for something to do. “Some students went to Ibiza,” Jarvis says. “We went to K2” – the world’s second-highest mountain. Wearing their grandfather’s old tweed coats they made it up to 6,500 metres before accepting that they did not have the skills or equipment to climb higher. (Rob is now a professional mountain guide in Chamonix.)

After a year as a cadet at Sandhurst in 1997, Jarvis joined the Parachute Regiment. In Kosovo, he was appointed aide-de-camp to General Sir Mike Jackson, the head of the UN force there. When Jackson returned to England in 2000 Jarvis accompanied him. He met Caroline at Jackson’s home in Wiltshire, where she worked as the family chef. They married the following year.

It was in Afghanistan in 2005, while following the UK general election at the end of a tour, that he first seriously considered a career in parliament. “My wife had not yet been diagnosed with cancer. I concluded that at some point, probably years ahead, I’d want to ease out of the army and get more involved in politics. My wife’s death accelerated that process.”

He has said that telling his children that their mother had died was the most difficult thing he has done. “It’s been hard for them. The only kind of minor saving grace was the fact my kids were so young [seven and five]. The magnitude of it was not completely lost, but if they had been the age they are now it would have been harder.

“It’s just one of those dreadful situations that you find yourself in and you’ve got two options: you can come through it or you can sink. Sinking was never an option because I had two small kids who wanted to go back to school quite quickly.”

He knew he could not return to war zones. But he did not want a desk job in the army. He quietly applied to be Labour’s candidate in Islwyn, south Wales, in 2010 and made the shortlist. The following year, the Barnsley Central seat became vacant.

Dan Jarvis, photographed in Barnsley this month by Rick Pushinsky.

Jarvis thought he stood little chance. The town has a long history of coal mining and union ties; on our run, we passed the house owned by Arthur Scargill, who Jarvis says is now a recluse. Every local MP for the previous 70 years had been from Barnsley or nearby, and most had been miners. And Nottingham, where Jarvis is from, is still associated with miners who kept working during the great strike of the mid-1980s.

“The only thing in my favour was that my predecessor was going to prison and there was huge discontent with the political classes. As someone untouched by all that, with a proven track record of service, I thought maybe I could be considered.”

He won selection through hard work and luck; at one point in the hustings when he tied with another candidate, they drew lots to see who would proceed. The by-election was more of a formality, as Barnsley Central is a safe Labour seat. But Jarvis was determined to make a point. He code-named his campaign “Operation Honey Badger” – the animal looks cuddly but is known for its strength and ferocity – and knocked on several thousand doors. He won 61 per cent of the vote, compared to the 47 per cent that Illsey had polled for Labour a year earlier.

After his victory, Jarvis moved the family home from Salisbury in Wiltshire to Barnsley. “Some people [MPs] decide that they want to be based in London,” he says. “I wanted to be rooted here. The kids are very settled and love the town.”

Initially, his parents – now divorced and both remarried – and his in-laws helped look after the children. Now Rachel takes care of most of the parental duties. Jarvis’s 12-year-old son and ten-year-daughter attend local state schools. “A bit of me thinks that it is kind of selfish for me to do it [being an MP and spending so much time away from home] . . . But we make it work.”

He thinks his children are proud that he is a politician, although his son was more impressed when he was soldier. They will help him campaign closer to the election in May.

Jarvis says Barnsley still suffers from misconceptions, with many people assuming that it is a heavily industrialised urban area. The last of the coal pits closed decades ago and three-quarters of the borough is green belt. The M1 passes close to the town and the Peak District is nearby.

Yet there are challenges. Barnsley Central is the 132nd worst of Britain’s 650 constituencies for unemployment. Underemployment is also a problem, with people who want permanent work having to settle for zero-hours or other part-time contracts.

“A lot of people are really struggling at the moment, making hard choices. This talk of an economic recovery: it’s a very different climate in London from the rest of Britain. In swaths of the country people are worse off by every metric than they were in 2010.”

Yet the Tories lead when it comes to economic stewardship and Labour is considered less friendly – even unfriendly – to business. Why is this?

“It’s because there is an election!” Jarvis says. “There are some clever election strategists paid a lot of money to run us down. There’s an absolute recognition [by Labour] that the private sector is an important part of the economy and that we can encourage business people to create wealth.”

I ask him about Ed Miliband: why are his approval ratings so poor? Opposition leaders have it tough compared to prime ministers, who have the benefit of incumbency, he says. Before they became prime minister, Jarvis recalls, Tony Blair was called “Bambi” and David Cameron was mocked for hugging huskies and cycling to work with his chauffeur behind him.

“When I talk to people about Ed, they do see him as a decent, well-meaning politician. But there is constant scrutiny upon him. I am not going to blame it all on the media but I think there’s a basic unfairness in the way the media have covered him. My take on Ed Miliband is that he’s an incredibly bright, thoughtful, decent guy who is doing the job for the right reasons.”

It’s now late morning and Jarvis is in his campaign gear: blue suit, comfortable brown walking shoes and a black waterproof jacket. As we approach the main shopping district, one of his constituents grips his hand and says: “We will beat Farage.”

Ukip isn’t a strong threat in Barnsley Central but it is in other areas nearby, including Rotherham. Labour supporters and politicians are concerned. (Later, Jarvis tells me that although the online version of Why Vote Labour initially sold better than the Conservative, Lib Dem and Ukip titles, the Ukip book is now the biggest seller. “Not that I’m competitive,” he says.)

“I am not remotely complacent about Ukip. They have successfully tapped in to a broader discontent about politics and politicians,” he says. But he thinks that support for Ukip has peaked. “They don’t have the momentum that they had at the time of the EU elections” in May last year.

The main market is busy with shoppers. Jarvis stops to talk to two female police officers and asks if they are having a quiet morning. “We don’t say the Q word!” one of
them replies in mock anger. They talk about the problem of local shops offering “legal highs”, products containing chemical substances that produce similar effects to cocaine or cannabis but not covered by current misuse of drugs laws. Jarvis is working with the government to have them banned.

We eat lunch at an Italian family restaurant. Out of earshot of Jarvis, I ask the two young waitresses if their MP is representing them well. The first says yes; she recognised him when he walked in. The second has no idea who her representative at Westminster is, and is only humouring me with an answer. “She [sic] is doing a good job,” the waitress says.

Jarvis chuckles when I tell him. I ask him what has gone wrong. “Many people think that our problems have outgrown our politics,” he says. “They feel lost in this rapidly changing world. Globalisation offers many opportunities but many challenges as well. We’ve seen how an economic crisis that had its roots on the other side of the world has had a direct impact on the livelihoods of people in this country and in my constituency. Technological improvements mean there is not as much of a role for those previously unskilled opportunities, so that brings pressures and challenges.”

The “established political order” also bears blame, he says. “Far too many politicians would never dream of knocking on people’s doors to ask them what they think. In many of the heartlands, Conservative and Labour, people sat on these big majorities and didn’t need to put the work in. The public was something of an afterthought. This has led to a breakdown of trust.

“Some people will try to simplify it and say it’s the expenses scandal. But that’s a tiny part of all this. Over many years there’s been a gradual separation between the political establishment and the people that they are there to serve.”

If the public’s confidence is to be won back, parliament needs to change. There are too few working-class people, too few women and too many career politicians, he says. “The public wants more people with life experience.”

He mentions one of Barnsley’s best-known MPs, Roy Mason, who worked underground as a coal miner at 14 and went on to represent the town from 1953 to 1987. “I suspect what he did would be much harder to do now and it’s a question of social mobility. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning: that kids who grow up here should have the same opportunities as those children in more affluent areas.”

I ask if he thinks what the New Statesman has called the 7 per cent problem – the domination of public life by a privately educated minority, as well as the correlation between poverty and educational failure – is also an issue at Westminster. “There is an over-representation of people [in parliament] who have been to public schools. That is a fact of life that we should seek to address.

“It’s not to say we have not got exceptional people who went to public schools who can do exceptional things. But we need a parliament that is truly representative of the public that it is there to serve.”

Like Jarvis, Rory Stewart – who made his name as a diplomat and author of books on Afghanistan and Iraq – entered parliament as a political novice, winning a seat in 2010. In an interview with the American magazine the New Republic last year, Stewart said: “It is difficult to work out what an MP is, what an MP does, what the role of the public servant today is supposed to be. Is this a useful way of contributing, and shaping things? I guess before I did this, it seemed much more obvious.”

When I ask Jarvis about it, he says, “I mean this in an entirely complimentary way – Rory tends to overthink things.”

He expands: “I am pretty clear what I am here to do. I am there to champion my constituents and make sure their voices are heard and to stand up for them. I think I have learned a bit about how you get things done and how parliament works.”

There are frustrations. One is a consequence of being in opposition and not being able to influence government policy. Another dislike is the “political pantomime” of Prime Minister’s Questions. “When I go round the schools I cannot justify that level of behaviour to kids who see it and ask me about it. Some people say it makes it more of a spectacle and fewer people would watch if it was not that sort of confrontational environment. I don’t really buy that.”

In a 2012 interview with the Spectator, Jarvis expressed admiration for David Miliband, describing his role as vice-chairman of the Blairite think tank Progress as evidence of him “seeing the importance of the centre ground”. When I ask him about this, he says he is also a member of Unison, Unite, the Fabian Society and the Co-operative Party. “In politics there are those who will always try to pigeonhole you. I have frustrated people by not allowing them to do that, and been very careful not to be linked with any one bit of the party.”

I ask what he thinks of David Cameron. “I have a huge amount of respect for the office of the PM and it’s the most incredibly difficult job. While [Cameron] has always been personally charming to me, I don’t know what he is about and what he stands for. He has never convinced me that he gets up in the morning filled with some ideological vigour to make the country a better place. With a number of that cohort, it’s about holding and wielding the influence and power of office for its own ends, rather than for the greater good.”

Does he aspire to be PM? He must be aware of the talk of him as a future Labour leader? He pauses. “I don’t spend much time thinking about that, to be honest. I am utterly focused on winning the election and that Ed will be prime minister. The consequences of not doing so are severe for this country. It is said of Michael Heseltine that from school he had this grand plan that he was going to do a bit of time in the army, make money in business, go into politics, go into the cabinet and be prime minister. I am always suspicious of those sorts of people. I just want to do the best job that I can.”

With a close election predicted, one might have thought that Labour would be exploring the possibility of an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. Jarvis rejects this. “We need to do everything we can to avoid the scenario of going in with the Lib Dems. Our focus is on beating them, not war-gaming on a scenario that may or may not come.”

After lunch, Jarvis’s office manager drives us to Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg’s constituency. Polls show that the Labour candidate here, Oliver Coppard, is within a few percentage points of defeating Clegg. Coppard and a dozen volunteers are gathered at Crookes Social Club and when Jarvis arrives they fan out into the surrounding streets to campaign. Few people are at home. “It can be a bit soul-destroying, knocking on 15 doors when there’s nobody in,” Jarvis says.

When someone does answer, he introduces himself as a Labour member campaigning for Coppard. He only lets on that he is an MP when called over to chat to a woman who wants to join the party. He asks her why. “Ukip is getting more powerful and I find that really worrying,” she says. “The only good thing is that it is getting people angry and doing things.”

After 90 minutes, it’s time to go. Jarvis is dropped off at Sheffield Station and rushes to buy a ticket before boarding a crowded train to Barnsley. His monthly meeting with local Labour Party members begins at 5pm in the town hall. Though he will be late, he will not cancel; he has missed only two of these Friday-evening meetings in four years – once to get married and once to appear on Any Questions. In the morning he will be back on Barnsley’s streets, knocking on doors. “The honey badger,” he said on the way to the station, “lives on.” 

Xan Rice is features editor of the NS

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Islamic is Islamic State?

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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.”

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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.