A traditional reedcutter at work on the Norfolk Broads. Photograph: Getty Images
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The frisson of autumn on the Norfolk Broads

A reminder is that we share a habitat and a common experience with other creatures.

Mid-autumn, just before our boat goes into dry dock for the winter, has a special frisson on the Norfolk Broads. The reeds begin to bleach and reflect the sunsets, so that for a while the water appears to glow brighter as the dusk closes in. The last migrants leaving for Africa cross with the first arriving from the tundra, the swallow flying under the goose. This week the local kingfishers have reappeared, darting between moored-up cruisers and skin-diving between their hulls. We’ve seen otters close to for the first time, one rolling right in front of the boat with a huge bream in its paws.

But the rain and cold that have permeated 2012 are still casting shadows on all species that depend on the sun. Flying insects, the birds that eat them, the raptors that prey on the insectivorous birds have gone into guerrilla mode; hiding out in remote, sheltered redoubts, working unsociable hours, keeping= silent to conserve energy. It’s happening below the radar of most of us and just how much damage has been done won’t be known until the year’s records are analysed. It’s unlikely to be good news.

Does it matter either way? Short of outright extinction, is the fraying and fragmentation of species of any real consequence to us? The government seemed to think so when it set out its
 green agenda and acknowledged that biodiversity was essential to the earth’s survival and what it liked to call “quality of life” (ours, that is). Now, this commitment has gone the way of all its other green pledges. In the past few months the government has junked the advice of two of its own scientific advisory committees. The biologically absurd and culturally objectionable badger cull has been given the go-ahead (albeit delayed until next year). Incontestable evidence that neo-nicotinoid insecticides are one of the causes of the collapse of bee populations has not made a dent in Defra’s support for them.

Now Defra has asked the Law Commission to rationalise wildlife protection laws in the UK. Not a bad idea, perhaps, given the piecemeal way they’ve accumulated over the past hundred years. An updating would provide an opportunity to bring legislation into line with new ecological threats, and with our new understanding of the crucial importance of wild species to the earth as a whole. But this is not what the Law Commission has in mind at all. The first duty of wildlife law, it has put on record, is to “provide the framework within which wildlife can be controlled, so that it does not interfere with the conduct of human activity” – a principle that is equivalent to saying that the prime object of child protection laws is to ensure the wretched infants don’t get in the way of their parents’ career opportunities. The commission concedes that the law should protect individual animals from harm, but only if that harm is “above a permitted level”.

It’s not clear if these barbarous, commodifying guidelines were dumped on the commission by Defra. They certainly sit snugly with the government’s social and economic project. But they may equally show the UK legal establishment returning to its default position on wildlife. The status of a wild organism in common law is as potential property. While it is free and alive, it belongs to everybody, or, more correctly, to nobody. But by being “rendered into possession” – the legal euphemism for killing or capturing – it is turned into goods, the property of the owner of the land on which it’s taken. The notion of wildlife as part of the family silver – private inheritance more than common heritage – melds seamlessly into the idea of it as disposable nuisance, and many early protection laws carried an exception clause concerning “interference with legitimate human activity”. But this is the first occasion when the exception has been made the guiding principle.

As a principle for legislation it’s not only irrelevant but actively hostile to the conservation of our archipelago’s biodiversity, as well as offensive to anyone who regards living organisms as more than entries on a cost-benefit ledger. The problem is that we don’t have an agreed alternative scale for the “value of species”. That clunking, portmanteau term “biodiversity” doesn’t help. Like “natural capital” it’s an intruder from corporate-speak, defining species as commodities, whose numbers can be simply and demonstrably totted up. By this crude index a perilously rare species barricaded in a nature reserve counts equally with an ocean-wide phytoplankton fuelling an entire ecosystem. They’re both just ticks in a box, a place where the trader meets the twitcher.

Nor is our current attitude towards nature’s “usefulness” (the implicit opposite of the Law Commission’s “interference with the conduct of human activity”) remotely appropriate. By
useful, we mean useful to us – and visibly so. We may have grudgingly admitted pollinating insects into the realms of the utilitarian but not the predators that attack the parasites of the pollinators. We allow agricultural fungicides to leach into the groundwater and collaterally damage a “useless” (and probably unlovely) tree-root fungal symbiote and wonder why hedgerow oaks are withering . . .

The interdependence of species is far too complex for us to make crass and anthropomorphic judgements about what is and what isn’t “useful”.

In September a huge fin whale beached on the East Anglian coast at Shingle Street. It was thin and in distress and eventually died, despite Herculean efforts to get it back into the water. For a few days it became a kind of shrine, while the authorities worked out what to do with it. People flocked to the beach to see the sinuous carcass with its prodigious maw. They came out of a sense of wonder, or morbid curiosity, or simple melancholy. A great leviathan had lost its way and become embarrassingly dead meat. In the end utilitarianism triumphed.
The whale was carted off on a lowloader to a processing plant, where its blubber was rendered down for biofuel.

Were those of us who thought it would have been more fitting to bury the body on the shore guilty of sentimentality as well as serious impracticality? This is not a “conservation of biodiversity” issue: the loss of one fin whale is neither here nor there. But the fate of its remains nags us with another challenge: how we conserve the meaning of wildlife – which may underpin our so far feeble attempts to save it physically.

I’d like to argue that we should respect wild organisms for their own sake, because they’re here. But I’m aware that this is a philosophical conceit and that “their own sake” is really code for “my own sake” – or at least my aesthetic and moral satisfaction. The philosopher Edward L McCord’s book The Value of Species tries to find a compromise. He argues that “individual species are of such intellectual moment – so interesting in their own right – that they rise above other values and merit enduring human embrace.” This raises utilitarianism to an intellectual level but for me still fails to do justice to the sheer breadth of the experience of living in a world alongside other species.

Gliding west at last light on the Broads, the answer often seems self-evident. In October the pinkfeet geese return from Iceland. The great scrolls of birds unwind across the sky so high up that they make yet another plane of colour, their bellies lit pink by the sun long after it has sunk out of sight. But they’re not remote in any other sense. The ebb and flow of their chatter, the calligraphy, the waving scribbles of birds (“taking a line for a fly”, to misquote Paul Klee) speaks plainly about the company of one’s kind on great journeys.

The Broads are full of such moments. The spring duets of cranes, segued trumpetings that can carry half a mile and which are couched in a minor third, an interval found in every musical culture on earth. Swallowtail butterflies folding their wings to fly through raised sails. A strange aquatic plant called hornwort, which on very hot days, in a few unpolluted pools, fizzes with so much transpired oxygen that the stems “jiffle” against each other and sing like Aeolian harps.

The Broads – medieval open-cast peat mines that were inundated during a climate shift in the 13th century – have just had a “biodiversity audit” and the results are jaw-dropping for anyone who regards them as no more than a watery holiday camp: more than 11,000 species, including a quarter of the entire country’s tally of conservation priorities.

But the statistics say nothing about the kind of relationships that are possible with this cornucopia of life forms. A few hours before the geese fly in to roost we round the corner in Somerton Dyke, where the whirligigs begin. Everyone looks out for these engaging beetles, just a few millimetres long, as they drift about in flotillas close to the reeds. They shine in the sun, like beads of mercury, and every few seconds the entire gang bursts into a frenzy of high speed, near-miss swirling, a waterborne roller derby. It’s comic and touching and so far unexplained – except that, like the flights of geese, it feels intuitively comprehensible, a kind of dance about the companionships of crowds.

Whirligigs are ancient animals, whose family emerged more than 200 million years ago in the Triassic period. They have no known predators, because of an extraordinary skin coating, which is a highly scented, toxic and antibacterial wetting agent. Their hind legs work like paddle- steamer wheels and give whirligigs the highest acceleration of any aquatic animals. They do not “interfere” with any human activity, nor are in any way practically useful to us (though I suspect that pharmacologists and nano-engineers will be looking at their bactericidal moisturiser before too long). And though they have undoubted “intellectual moment” it’s not at all clear why they touch one so. You round a corner and there they are, at the usual address, and if they’re not you begin to worryand miss them.

This is nothing to do with anthropomorphism or manufactured empathy. It comes, for me, from something I can only describe as a sense of neighbourliness; the emotion the poet John Clare felt so powerfully for his fellow commoners, of all species. Neighbourliness is not friendship. It doesn’t demand reciprocity. It’s based on sharing a habitat, on the common experience of place and season and the hardships of weather. It might provide a bridge across that great conceptual divide between us and other species.

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

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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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.