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Where two kinds of wildness collide

In the second in a series of essays on nature and landscape, Richard Mabey sees a premonition of spr

Psychogeographers, the cognoscenti tell us, have been rebranded less dizzily as “deep topographers”. The BBC’s arts editor, Will Gompertz, is making a film about an aspiring new acolyte, and is asking me if I see myself as one of their company. We’re sitting on a bench in the Oxford Botanic Garden, surrounded by irises and service trees, and I answer, too snappily, no, I’m a shallow topographer. It’s a smart-arsed, irritable reflex at these tiresome abstractions but I realise that I’m serious.

I try to explain how, for me, landscapes are paramountly about their present life, their vivacious, protean, membranous surfaces, not some intangible, semi-mystical motherlode. By lucky chance there’s a visual aid on tap.  From where we’re sitting, the gate of the Botanic Gardens, built in 1633, was intended to perfectly frame the Great Tower of Magdalen College, and form a kind of Age of Enlightenment ley line. The wild card intervened and
the local builders misaligned it by a jarring five degrees.

I was being disingenuous, of course. Landscapes and nature work by a constant juggle ­between pattern and process, chaos and order. Rock meets weather. Evanescent greenleaf generates hardwood trunk. Instinct negotiates with opportunism. Migration becomes settlement. Above ancient seasonal rhythms and inscrutable connectivities, life skits about like a cursor on a ouija board, guided by chance and exuberant inventiveness as much as deep-rooted imperatives. And especially so in spring. Gretel Ehrlich, gazing over the Wyo­ming Hills at flocks of migrating finches, falls
of hail, crashings of orchard branches, concluded that in spring, “the general law of increasing disorder is on the take”.

I get disorderly and fidgety, too, after the months of rutted inertia, and wait for that day in early March when there is a kind of pre-spring overture, when the light seems to open out, lose the brittle clarity of winter sunshine and dust the leafless landscape with the merest hint of pollen. It happened on 2 March this year and, guessing where the action would be, I sped to the vast liminal marshlands of north Norfolk. The atmosphere on the coast was electric. The sky was full of jitterbugging birds, windblown flurries of lapwing, chattering, cantankerous mobs of brent geese, flocks of golden plover, invisible until they turned in synchrony and the sun tinselled the undersides of their wings. I soon saw one reason for their restlessness. A juvenile peregrine falcon, driven by rapacious instincts, adolescent hormones and sheer devilment, was repeatedly scything at 150mph through a shape-shifting plume of starlings – and missing every time. But I sensed another thrill running through the masses of birds. They were poised for their journey home, back to the northern tundra.

Do we still have this restless itch to move on somewhere deep in our own biology? We’re touched by migration, bird migration especially, more than can be explained by the simple associations it has with the new seasons. The pioneering US nature writer Aldo Leopold envisioned the migration of geese as a kind of eco-poetic commerce, the corn of the mid-west combining with the light of the tundra to generate “as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March”. Do the airy, swooping flights of swallows and other summer migrants from Africa, so different from the movements of northern birds, sound faint cultural – maybe even genetic – echoes of that warm southern landscape from which the first nomadic humans emerged? Most of these annual visitors are in alarming and inexplicable decline, and we can have no idea of what we may lose if that link with our origins finally vanishes.

In the summer of 2010, just a few miles east of where I watched the peregrine, archaeologists discovered the oldest evidence yet of human occupation in Britain, a cache of flint tools probably 900,000 years old. They identified the likely makers as Homo antecessor, a group of nomadic hunter-gatherers who had risked the journey up from the continent to what was probably the northernmost habitable part of the European land mass. Happisburgh, where the find was, is currently falling into the sea, but at that time was a bone-chilling boreal forest like northern Scandinavia. When the bitter 2010 winter struck, we locals took some pride in our antecessors’ gutsiness.

I migrated to Norfolk myself ten years ago, swapping beech-clad hills for windswept flatlands. With hindsight, my journey seems as serendipitous as H. antecessor’s. It was driven by necessity (I’d been ill and needed to move away) but guided by chance – fortunate encounters, tangy memories of once-visited spots and longed-for creatures. Wafted north-east like a speck of spindrift, I ended up in the Waveney Valley, where I’ve lived ever since. I see it as home but not as a place of new roots. It’s not that I now feel rootless but that I seem to have become capable of briefly putting down new tendrils anywhere I go. As Bruce Chatwin argued, we’re more nomadic as a species than it’s politically convenient to admit.

But if I’m less deep topographer than landscape tart, I still have my manor, an entirely subjective parish that encompasses the land within a roughly ten-mile radius of my home. And every so often I beat the bounds, see what’s up, what’s about. I’m not, I hope, laying any kind of claim, just acting out that old warp and weave of nomadic curiosity and territorial affection. I looked up the exact time of the spring equinox the night before: 20 March, 5.40am. And just as one often does with a flight to catch, I woke exactly at that moment. It was barely light and the world looked flat and
lifeless. I imagined the earth enjoying a brief moment of equipoise, just before it began to tilt again. What a hope!

I head west, out into the sand country. It’s a mild, sunny day but the drought is biting hard here. The ditches are empty and the hedges leafless – except that, thanks to another kind of migration, they’re foaming with the white blossom of cherry plum, “fools’ blackthorn”, brought here from the Middle East 1,000 years ago. Much of the farmland here looks as if it’s been imported from a Martian agribusiness. Immense fields are entirely shrouded in moisture-retaining plastic sheets, as shiny as mountain lakes. Bare-earth pig ranches are sprouting everywhere. Pigs in wooden pens, corrugated iron bungalows, canvas marquees like a porcine Glastonbury. Nothing deeper in the topography here than a hog wallow.

I drive past the farm where in February an animal-rights activist filmed the most horrific violence against stock that the RSPCA has ever seen. A few days later the farmer, an honourable and much-respected man by all accounts, killed himself. There has been no identification or even rumours about the workers responsible, but I notice that the ubiquitous billboards, urging us to “Support our higher welfare standards. Buy British pork” are beginning to disappear and be replaced by “Keep out” notices.

A few miles on, I climb over a fence, out toward a big sheep pasture, and hear the heart-stirring bubbling of curlews. I can’t see them, but a buzzard glides overhead. They’re now coming back to East Anglia, after generations of persecution by gamekeepers. Then I turn round and see a trapped magpie frantic in a cage I can’t even reach, and along the barbed wire round it a dozen shrivelling moles, impaled by their noses. Even William Blake might have seen this spot as some kind of psychogeographical axis mundi, where two different kinds of wildness have collided.

This is edgy country, nervous of water shortage, EU regulations and a public scrutiny unlike anything it has experienced before, and I’m relieved to move east and south into the clay country. It’s a gentler, more intimate countryside, with small fields and smallholdings, old lanes and even older echoes. When I first came to live here I was browsing a large-scale map and was astonished to see that all the ancient features – green lanes, wood edges, field boundaries – were roughly aligned in a north-west/ south-east direction. A few local historians had spotted it, too. This fragment of landscape, dating from the Iron Age, has a four-degree tilt to the west. It is invisible from ground level, so how it happened is a mystery. Thoreau had a theory that our species has a ­natural instinct to move in a westerly direction, following the course of the sun.

I follow my own instincts along this maze of lanes, through the village where, in the 1920s, two London socialists defied the local gentry and clergy and set up a community school that lasted until the outbreak of the Second World War. I find thin secluded valleys I’ve never been in before, pass fuzzy commons, snail farms, otter streams, craft studios, a whole magpie ecology blessedly free of a cage. These valleys and wet patches have been the protectors of East Anglia’s distinct sense of identity. They’ve kept the big roads away and people come to East Anglia, not through it.

I end up in one of these miniature flood-plain valleys, where I saw my first local barn owl, that ancient parish familiar. I haven’t seen one here for two years but just as the sun sets one skews out of a ditch. It flies off like the dismissive wave of a white cape, on an incompre­hensible course over a dog-walking green. Barn owls do not fly high, but if it had and had looked down on the parish I’d just circumnavigated, it would have seen a pattern that turned upside-down my glib dismissal of deep topography. The surface membrane, inert, plastic, barbed and private; and, flowing around and through it, these thin meandering ribbons of life, first carved out at the end of the Ice Age.

Richard Mabey’s latest book is “The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn” (Profile Books, £9.99)
 

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

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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.