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He was the future once

David Cameron and the struggle to be modern.

By the end of this year, David Cameron will have served longer as Conservative leader than his three most recent predecessors put together. If he makes it as far as a May 2015 general election, he will have held on to the job for nearly a decade.

Longevity would be an advantage for a prime minister in command of his party, running a competent administration and presiding over a benign economy. Cameron is none of those things. He also wears the shopworn look badly because his leadership was founded on the pledge to be modern.

This is no minor point of style. The Cameron project was conceived in the middle of the last decade as a re-enactment of Tony Blair’s march on power in the mid-1990s. A metropolitan cult of renewal was central to that ambition. So was complacency about the economic outlook. Tories today deride Gordon Brown’s boast about having eliminated the boom-bust cycle, yet the scale of Labour’s hubris is also a measure of Cameron’s credulity. His only economic policy was to share the proceeds of growth. Before the crash, he and George Osborne matched Brown’s spending plans. That was another country. It was “Cool Britannia”, the republic of swinging urbanity whose coronation party was New Labour’s 1997 landslide victory and whose crown Cameron was claiming when he declared of Blair, in their first parliamentary confrontation in 2005, “He was the future – once!”

The opposite of Cool Britannia is Ukip Rising. There are many reasons why support for a fringe party might soar after the financial crisis: frozen wages, shrinking services and climbing living costs. The Tories are in charge of a mess. Labour is too keenly remembered as the author of the mess to look like the obvious remedy. The Liberal Democrats, once a receptacle for protest votes, are disqualified by incumbency.

Yet Nigel Farage’s new celebrity describes more than a groundswell of economic malaise. Many of his voters suffer under straitened circumstances but many do not. Much flirting with Ukip goes on in affluent shire constituencies and in the pages of Tory-leaning newspapers. It is this component, animating the rebellious urges of Conservative MPs, that gives Farage’s insurgency an infusion of establishment respectability even when it claims to be anti-establishment. Farage’s best hope of a parliamentary breakthrough is a Tory defection in a safe seat.

Cultural revanchism is more important as a driver of Ukip’s fortunes than financial distress. The party appeals to resentment of social changes that began before New Labour but accelerated under it. Ukip pines for a country that was ethnically less diverse, in which homosexuality was a guilty secret and where women did not work in the same jobs and for the same pay as men.

Farage gives those who are struggling to adapt to changing times permission to blame someone else. He indulges the suspicion that smug, effeminate, multicultural liberals victimise straight, white folk. Their instruments of oppression are European integration, human rights law, environmentalism and “political correctness”. The ultimate symbol of bien-pensant colonisation is the ban on smoking in pubs.

When the Tories were in opposition, cultural refugees from the new liberal-left social consensus could cherish the hope that a Conservative prime minister might bring cultural restitution. Then along came Cameron’s clique of west London fops, legislating for gay marriage and referring to the party’s stalwart activists as “swivel-eyed loons”. To the disinherited fringe, Cameron’s “modernisation” felt like a continuation of the reviled Blair-Brown occupation. (The reliance on Labour MPs to pass the same-sex marriage legislation reinforces the sense of conspiracy.) No wonder Farage’s rallying cry is territorial. He urges his supporters to “take our country back”.

The Ukip leader’s act of wounded disenfranchisement infuriates pro-Cameron Tories. Farage, they point out, is the son of a stockbroker who went to public school and worked in the City. He causes the most mischief in southern Tory seats, which have escaped the worst of the recession. “We indulge these people by saying they’ve been given nothing,” a senior Conservative adviser says. “How many Ukip supporters have second homes in Marbella?”

Not so many, actually. Opinion polls show that Ukip voters are more likely to earn below the national average than Tories. They are also disproportionately white, male, over 60 and without a university education. Frustrated Tory moderates are right to the extent that backbench rebellion with a Ukip flavour – urging withdrawal from the European Union; recoiling from gay marriage – is a more popular sport among MPs with comfortable majorities. Conservatives in unsafe seats are more likely to have urban and non-white constituents who preferred Cameron when he was changing his party. They are not seduced by reactionary venom.

While Ukip can pick up votes from across the political spectrum with a menu of complaints about crime, immigration and Europe, Tories shorten their reach by chasing the same agenda. People expect different things from a protest party and a serious party of government. They might mistrust the EU, yet still be put off when Conservatives harp on about nothing else. Farage’s function is to channel disappointment with the turn that the nation has taken. Cameron’s job is to convince the country that he has set it on the right track. They are incompatible aims.

Labour has a variation of the same problem. When Ed Miliband became leader of his party, he expected to have a monopoly on opposition. He also judged that the Conservatives, under the haughty command of Cameron and his millionaire chums, would struggle to win the affections of low- and middle-income families on which the burden of austerity falls hardest. Miliband was right to identify the “squeezed middle” as the vital electoral audience but wrong to think he could have it to himself.

In recent by-elections, Ukip has proved capable of eating into potential Labour support, including in northern seats – Rotherham and South Shields – that are no-go areas for Tories. A right-wing populist movement that targets immigration and welfare is plainly a threat to Labour when those are the issues in which its record in government is deemed most toxic.

The decay of a working-class base has strengthened the hand of those around Miliband who urge a “Blue Labour” emphasis on traditional values – community, family, civic pride and patriotism. According to this view, the Blair-Brown years were spoiled by capitulation to market forces and government by remote bureaucracy. That led to fatal atrophy in the connection between the state and its citizens.

There are two problems with this school. First, it trades in evanescent language that won’t be moulded into campaign slogans. Second, it is nostalgic for a spirit of left solidarity that is unfamiliar to many voters and so contains no accessible guide to what the next Labour government might feel like.

Miliband is fond of saying that his greatest adversary is fatalism, by which he means voters despairing of the potential for politics to solve their problems and so surrendering to austerity. His “one nation” creed is meant to counter that threat with an uplifting offer of economic reconstruction. Yet Labour’s more prominent message is rejection of cuts and horror at their consequences, combined with the cagiest acknowledgement that spending restraint is inevitable. Miliband’s optimistic rhetoric is sabotaged by the tacit pessimism of indecision. It is as if the party is not articulating a vision of the future because the prospect of governing with little money is too grim to contemplate. As one shadow cabinet minister tells me: “We’re complaining about the conditions on the ship. We’re not getting across the sense that the ship needs to be going in a different direction.”

Miliband still has a more plausible claim on the future than Cameron. Labour supporters are younger and more diverse. The Tories’ inability to reach voters in northern cities and its toxicity to immigrant communities is lethal. It raises the spectre of what one Conservative strategist calls “the Mitt Romney problem” – a reference to the demographic decline in the core Republican vote that risks locking the American right out of the White House for the foreseeable future. Tories would do well to heed the blunt assessment by the South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham of his party’s prospects: “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” For Cameron, it is worse. He is splitting the angry-whiteguy vote with Ukip.

Cameron wants to tell a forward-looking story about equipping Britain to compete in the “global race”. This is at heart a liberal message of openness and international engagement. It is drowned out by the noisier tom-toms in the Tory party, sounding the retreat from the 21st century. The troops are regrouping as a dispossessed army of ageing, vanquished culture warriors.

The prevailing tone of British politics is alarmed by the present, ashamed of the recent past and obsessed with romantic retellings of an imaginary past anterior. The vacancy for a leader who projects credible optimism about what comes next is unfilled. For Cameron, this is now an almost impossible task. He is defined in the public eye as a man who tried to be modern and failed. He spent his sunniest phrases in the early years of his leadership peddling a complacent brand of optimism that was defunct before he even entered Downing Street. Any politician is lucky to be feted as the future once. Cameron cannot be the future twice.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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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.