Ann Widdecombe - extended interview

A longer version of this week's NS interview.

How is life, now that you have left parliament?
Absolutely wonderful. It feels like I left 20 years ago, rather than two months ago.

How is the coalition faring without you?
I'd rather we didn't have one. I think we gave away too much in order to get it. Coalitions are bad news -- you never know what you are voting for. Coalitions are built on traded manifesto promises. If, for example you were a Liberal Democrat who specifically voted Lib Dem because you had a moral objection to Trident, and it was the only mainstream party offering you no Trident, well, then, bad luck. And if you were a Conservative who specifically voted Conservative in order to get rid of the Human Rights Act, then bad luck. But I do not see that we had any choice, given the economic situation.

Are there particular concessions which bother you?
Well, the Human Rights Act is a very obvious one. I've yet to see how it pans out on inheritance tax, but that's another. I think we just have to see. A headlong rush into electoral reform is not sensible and is a distraction. We have an economy to get right and there shouldn't be much that distracts us from that.

Does this government, to borrow a phrase from Alastair Campbell, "do God"?
Well, Eric Pickles has said he will do away with the nonsense of playing down Christianity and funding any activity unless it's a church one. So one of the earliest coalition pronouncements was, from my point of view, a very good one. The change away from the last Labour government has brought in a greater recognition of the role of the church.

Do you feel that religion is pushed to the margins in British public life?
It has been for a very long time. Under the last government we saw a raft of law, principally equality law, which specifically set out to crush religious freedom and to crush freedom of conscience. There is an immense difference between being told that you must not discriminate against something and being told that you must promote it. The last government failed to preserve that distinction.

Which particular issues concern you?
Catholic adoption agencies, for example, had to either place children with homosexual couples or close. Now some actually did close; they were placing the children who were hardest to place -- that was the job of Catholic adoption agencies. So that very, very vital role disappeared. It's almost an article of faith now that you can't exercise Christian conscience.

Were you upset by the row over Christian bed-and-breakfast owners being told they had to accept homosexual guests?
. . . even if the B&B is your own house. Chris Grayling, when he was shadow home secretary, said there should be a distinction between having a say over what goes on in your own house and if you are running a large hotel where anybody comes and goes. When he said that, the result was demotion [to below the rank of shadow cabinet minister].

With about half of the population being non-believers, what role should religion have in public life?
You've picked one statistic. If you actually look at the census results and all the rest of it, most people do classify themselves as Christian. And we do still have an established church. If we deny our culture and become nothing and everything, that weakens us. Our state ceremonies have a religious foundation. We have compulsory religious education. And the Church should be a moral guardian. We have in this country a long Christian heritage and Christian culture and we shouldn't be in too much of a hurry to give that up.

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey suggests that at least half the country isn't religious . . .
Half the country won't be practising, but when you get events like 9/11, the first thing that happens is the churches fill up. People may say they're not religious, and when Richard Dawkins says he's not religious he actually means it; so would Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. But when people who are shrugging say they're not religious, they mean they're not attached to a particular church, they're not practising at the moment. They may not necessarily mean that they discard the concept of God altogether.

If we are in a position where the majority, or a very large minority, of the population are not practising Christians, is it necessarily the best thing to define ourselves as a Christian country?
Well, yes it is. You can't get away from the fact that our culture and our heritage is that way, and if we just deny it all and become nothing and everything we shall lose our character. That actually weakens a country: it can weaken a country very, very badly not to have a clearly defined character. I also think, for example, that if you disestablish the Church of England that would be a very dangerous step. It would inevitably lead to the dissolution of the monarchy -- I mean, not by the middle of Tuesday afternoon, but that's where it would lead. So I think there are all manner of reasons for keeping the church at the centre of society, and the established Church in this country is Anglican. And I would die in a ditch for its establishment. Sadly, the people I wouldn't expect to find in the ditch beside me would be the hierarchy of the Church of England.

What's your opinion of the Pope's intervention on the Equalities Bill?
The Pope was absolutely right to comment. A lot of his flock are feeling under pressure. We think we're being neglected, and I see no reason at all why the head of the Catholic Church shouldn't give us some comfort by making an announcement.

His intervention with the government of another country is acceptable?
Well, of course. The Vatican is a state, and we all have diplomatic relations with the Vatican. It's not some isolated little cult somewhere, it represents 17.5 per cent of the world's population. And that's just the Catholics -- there are all the other Christians on top of that.

Are the rumours true -- are you about to become Britain's ambassador to that state?
No. That is pure speculation from the press. Your profession loves speculation. [She laughs]

True! To return to the Catholic Church -- is it in crisis, given the abuse scandal and so on?
No. Obviously, this is serious. One child abused is too many. But in, for example, America, which bore the brunt of the first very big scandal, 2 per cent of its priests actually faced allegations -- and that doesn't mean they were actually proved. So it isn't as if there is abuse going on in every parish. Unfortunately, as I say, one abuse is enough. It's something that the Church has to get on top of; I think it is something the Church is getting on top of. But why just pick on the Church? This happens in teaching, it happens in children's homes, it happens just about everywhere that you can mention. The overwhelming majority of abusers are secular, married men.

You converted from Anglicanism to Catholicism in the 1990s, with a period of agnosticism in between. What caused the shift?
I left the Church of England because there was a huge bundle of straw. The ordination of women was the last straw, but it was only one of many. For years I had been disillusioned by the Church of England's compromising on everything. The Catholic Church doesn't care if something is unpopular. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned if it's true it's true, and if it's false it's false. The issue over women priests was not only that I think it's theologically impossible to ordain women, it was the nature of the debate that was the damaging thing, because instead of the debate being "Is this theologically possible?" the debate was "If we don't do this we won't be acceptable to the outside world". To me, that was an abdication of the Church's role, which is to lead, not to follow.

Do you welcome the formal discussions that are going between the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church over conversion?
The rejection of Rowan Williams's amendment in the last few days -- which would mean that conscientious objectors would not have had to answer to a woman bishop -- means that you've now got a group of objectors with nowhere to go. Because that has happened, I think the likelihood of a split in the C of E, along the lines of the one we saw in the early Nineties, is more rather than less likely. If it happens, what I sincerely hope is that the Catholic Church in this country is better geared up to cope with it than it was last time.

Last time, I think the view was, "Well, this isn't going to happen for another five years", so nobody had put anything in place. What happened depended entirely on what parish you were in. So in some dioceses the priests were fast-tracked through if they were wishing to become Catholic priests. The laity were put through the following Easter; everything was fast-tracked. In other parishes, the bishops didn't like it, dragged their feet, didn't want to receive Anglicans, and Rome finally gave guidance, but only after there'd been a long period of muddle. I just hope that this time, if there is a split, that the Catholic Church has got its house in order, rather than trying to react piecemeal. It was a mess last time, a serious mess.

Are you optimistic that the Church will be more supportive this time round?
I think the very fact that the Pope has, as you mentioned, opened up this dialogue between the two churches should make the path easier. I think he's done this because he can see the split coming just as well as everybody else can. It's not a split I'm wishing on the Anglican Church, because I want everyone to be spiritually happy where they would prefer to be, but if it does happen then I would hope that we are better geared up than last time.

Is the priesthood the only field from which you feel women should be exempt?
I despair when people say, "But you're a successful woman." I do not stand in persona Christi at the point of the consecration. That is what we're talking about -- we're talking about a woman standing in the person of Christ. You might as well ask a man to stand in the person of the Virgin Mary. It's something that's been brought about purely in response to the modern pressure for equality. And that's fine: I believe in equality, from the Prime Minister down through the country. But the Church is a thing apart and always should be.

What did you learn from your agnostic period?
My faith was much stronger when I came back because it was more hard-won. That is a fairly common experience of people who hold a view and then change it. They are normally very much stronger and more convinced than people who've always grown up with that view.

Do you understand secularism better now?
I understand well enough where people who do not believe are coming from. What I do not like is militant secularism, whereby anything is acceptable as long as it's not Christian.

Is the growth of secularism a worry?
I think secularism was always going to be a very difficult force to cope with and I think people have seen it coming for some time. Its benefit for religion has been that it's united us much more. Somebody once asked me how I got on with Ian Paisley when I converted to Catholicism, and I said, "Well, actually, we get on extremely well because we've got a common foe." I think it's meant that Christians, instead of agitating over each other, have actually started to look outwards and have banded together. Secularism has no central goal, it's just promoting endless relativism. That's why there is a huge moral drift in the country: everybody is infallible except the Pope, if you like. Crazy. Once you say there's no such thing as truth, everybody can make up their own mind, then truth becomes irrelevant, because it cannot be true both that God exists and that God does not exist: it's impossible for both statements to be true. One statement is true and one is not.

Does Britain's religious plurality concern you?
I don't have a problem with other people having different faiths; my problem is if we confuse respecting that with surrendering our own faith. That's what we have been doing as a country for a couple of decades. We've been saying, "Oh we mustn't do that, because it might offend other faiths." Well, actually, other faiths just scratch their heads in disbelief.

Who are your heroes?
William Wilberforce is one -- not just because of the abolition of slavery, but because he stuck at it when everything was against him. So, if you like, what I respect in Wilberforce is the sheer moral resolution.

Where is home?
Home is Dartmoor. Beautiful, beautiful wild Dartmoor.

Is there, or was there, a plan?
God has charge of these plans, but my plan at the moment is to enjoy retirement.

So your plan doesn't include, say, an ambassadorial role at the Holy See?
Good try, but I'm not being drawn.

What would you like to forget?
Nothing. Even bad things are lessons learned.

Are we all doomed?
We can be saved. But it's up to us.

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.