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Home is where the heartbreak is

Asylum-seeking women are especially vulnerable to persecution, but the British immigration system do

"Maybe I should just go back and die," says Esther. "It happens all the time. People go to sleep and just don't wake up." If she returns to her native Kenya, Esther will be under threat of murder and rape. But the UK has refused her asylum. Her situation is typical of the plight of vulnerable female refugees, trapped in a system that does not recognise their needs.

Esther, a born-again Christian and activist, was forced to flee Kenya after breaking the traditions of her tribe, the Luos. At the prompting of her husband, a warrant was issued for her arrest. The Mungiki terror cult also put up posters in Nairobi naming her as a target for her church activism. Her house was burned down, and she does not know the whereabouts of her children - something she finds too painful to discuss. "Luo women have no rights," she says. "The husband paid money for you, so you are their possession and must do what they tell you."

The UN Refugee Convention, written in 1951, defines a refugee as someone with "a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion", with no protection from their own state.

Debora Singer, policy and research manager at the charity Asylum Aid, explains that lone women often have a distinct set of reasons for seeking asylum. "Women might flee for the same reasons as men, such as political persecution, but they tend to be involved at a lower level," Singer says. This doesn't mean that they are at less risk, but it can be perceived this way, and the danger is harder to prove.

“Women also face persecution that is not perpetrated by the state, but by their families or communities, such as rape, domestic violence, honour crimes and female genital mutilation."

This presents the problem of evidence. Political persecution is one thing, but how can a raped woman prove that her family will murder her because of the shame she will bring? A good lawyer can argue that a woman is part of a certain social group with unchangeable characteristics - a divorced woman, for example, will be a social outcast in many countries - but this is the legal point on which women's cases often fail.

The Home Office accepts that Esther is in danger, but recommends "internal flight", meaning returning to another part of Kenya. To do so, she will have to pass through Nairobi. "They will hack me," she says, fearing death by machete at the hands of her persecutors.

Meena Patel, joint co-ordinator of Southall Black Sisters, which provides support for female asylum-seekers, explains. "The Home Office now quite consistently says that a woman can't return to her particular area but can return to another part of that country. But women such as these in countries throughout Asia and Africa will struggle to survive. They will be targeted, vulnerable and ostracised. It will be very difficult to get jobs, especially if they are single, leading to poverty and destitution. It doesn't matter if you're from the Punjab and you go back to Gujarat - you are a single woman, therefore you may be seen as a loose woman or a prostitute. There are no systems in place to protect lone women from the risks they face."

Persecution in Pakistan

Salma was sent to England at the age of 18 from a village in Pakistan, for an arranged marriage with a British citizen. Kept as a slave in his house, she suffered physical and sexual abuse. She is strikingly small and speaks quickly, rocking back and forth as she describes how she escaped to a women's refuge after finding guns in the house, and then called home in Pakistan.

“My mother kept saying I couldn't go back," she says. "Then my brother snatched the phone and said if I came back, he would kill me because I would bring shame on the family." Brutalised and terrified of being removed from the UK, Salma tried to throw herself under a bus. Although she survived this suicide attempt, she says she will try again if her application for asylum fails - "then I can choose how I die".

A landmark case in 1999 ruled that divorced women in Pakistan did qualify as a persecuted group, and that the women in question should be granted refugee status. Lord Steyn, adjudicating, said that "discrimination against women in Pakistan is partly tolerated by the state, and partly sanctioned by the state". He accepted that there was strong discrimination against divorced women, who are viewed as licentious and potentially contaminating. But subsequent cases have overturned this, leaving the ground uncertain for women, a legal grey area dominated by case law. As human-rights cases often relate to men, the boundaries are even further blurred. It might be viable for a young man to flee within a country, but it is impossible for a lone woman such as Salma because of her precarious social position.

In this minefield, it can be hard to find good representation. With cuts in legal aid funding, solicitors can work only a prescribed number of hours on each case. "Cases involving women often take more time," says Jonathan Bishop, an immigration lawyer. "All asylum cases are complex, but for women, solicitors must find evidence of violence or abuse and often rely on expert testimony on the risks the woman will face upon her return, which costs money."

Gender guidelines

Yet another problem is a lack of existent female-sensitive procedures. This year's Vulnerable Women's Project by the Refugee Council found that 76 per cent of the women it supports have been raped, giving some indication of the high prevalence of sexual violence suffered by female asylum-seekers.

The UK Border Agency does have gender guidelines - this is one of just five countries worldwide that does - which state that a female interviewer, and child care for the duration of the interview, must be provided if requested. However, at present, only half of the UK's regions provide this, and caseworkers report that gender guidelines are rarely enforced.

Singer expands: "It's difficult for women in this country to talk about rape or domestic violence, let alone those from a very conservative society. If they later pluck up the courage to disclose that they were raped, it often goes against their credibility, and is seen as being made up to support their case . . . A major problem is women not being believed. For a rape victim, that is very, very traumatic."

While the treatment of rape victims in the criminal justice system is far from ideal - and the subject of separate campaigning - 16 gender-sensitive provisions exist, such as allowing victims to give evidence by video link. For women seeking asylum, there are just two. The lack of gender guidelines in the legal asylum process, or adherence to guidelines by the UKBA, leads not only to distress for women, but also to a waste of public funds as many cases go to appeal. No one is arguing that all women claiming asylum should be granted automatic refugee status. But it is equally impossible to say that the current system treats them fairly.

Samira Shackle is a contributing writer at the New Statesman

Bordering on ignorance

The plight of female asylum-seekers is unfashionable. Although it attracts attention from the charitable sector - in particular, with a Women's Charter by Asylum Aid, endorsed by 160 organisations - the media and government remain largely uninterested.

I spoke to the UK Border Agency, where a spokesman defended the status quo, given that "asylum applications by female applicants may well be considered under the heading of 'Particular Social Group'".

I asked about the UKBA's gender guidelines, which women and front-line workers claim are often not enforced. The spokesman stressed that requests for same-sex interviewers and interpreters are always met, "where operationally possible". With the inherent difficulty of providing evidence of persecution by family or community, cases often rest upon the woman's own credibility as a witness; yet few provisions are made to assist her in telling the full story.

What about the disjunction between the treatment of UK rape victims and victims who are asylum-seekers? "We do not accept that there is a direct analogy in the way women who are victims of crime in the UK are treated in the criminal justice system and the way that the UK considers those seeking asylum." No reason was given.

The UKBA says that it is working to ensure that women asylum-seekers are treated fairly, but these answers do not give a real sense of engagement with the complexity of the issue.

Samira Shackle

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Mob rule

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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.