House of poshos

MPs’ dependence on unpaid interns gives those from richer backgrounds a headstart on breaking into

Charlie Sonnex works the night shift at Sainsbury's. Last year, he worked next to Andy Coulson, the Conservatives' director of communications, as an intern at the party's headquarters in Westminster. He wanted to stay on, but after nine months of working unpaid, he couldn't afford it. "All the interns there had rich parents and savings, so I guess the office just had enough applications to keep it going."

Sonnex was one of the estimated 450 revolving interns working in parliament. Together, they prop up our democracy by providing as many as 18,000 hours of free labour a week, saving MPs an estimated £5m a year in labour costs. Of a cross-party selection of interns interviewed, nearly two-thirds said they had worked for three months or more and most of them were doing the same tasks and hours as salaried staff. For many, it was their second or third placement. But, according to the general workers' union Unite, under 1 per cent of parliamentary interns receive the minimum wage, and almost half of them don't even get expenses.

“If we want a representative parliament, we need people from diverse backgrounds," says Dan Whittle, a representative from the parliamentary branch of Unite. "Parliament should be setting an example in social mobility, not hindering it."

According to Sonnex, most interns are middle-class or upper-middle-class, with private means. "My family are middle-class - we do all right. But the interns at HQ have got horses and Aston Martins," he says. "They'd all go out for food and drinks after work . . . Lots of the shadow cabinet were drinking with them - but I had no money whatsoever."

The practice isn't confined to a particular party (nor to parliament: organisations across the private sector, including the New Statesman, use unpaid interns). The minister for higher education, David Lammy, has interns working unpaid for months at a time in his office. One of his interns said that they worked all weekend to finance their positions, and another - ironic, given Lammy's rhetoric about social mobility - said he lived on "pocket money from parents". An intern for a Liberal Democrat MP supported an unpaid internship by working at a call centre. Interns from all parties report that they have had to call in sick because they couldn't afford the travel expenses to get to work.

Talent pool

It's not surprising there are so few names attached to these stories. Interns are disposable, and those who question the conditions are rebuked. When an intern for one of the main parties agreed to do a media interview about her time in parliament with the consent of her manager, it backfired. She never revealed the name of her MP, but when asked about pay, she said she had received only a month's expenses out of four because her receipts had been lost. When the interview was published, she got calls from party officials. "People were phoning up and threatening me," she says.

All the leading parties are committed to minimum-wage legislation, which recognises that there should be basic pay for work. More recently, Alan Milburn's July 2009 report on social mobility pointed out that a two-week placement in London can cost up to £500 in rent, food and transport. "Current employers are missing out on talented people," the report said. "There are negative consequences for social mobility and fair access to the professions. A radical change is needed."

In October, the Speaker, John Bercow, acknowledged that if interns were doing regular work and regular hours, then minimum-wage legislation should apply. In its investigation into MPs' expenses, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority supported the Speaker's statement, reiterating that interns should be paid the minimum wage.

Unions are warning that if MPs aren't careful, they could be vulnerable. An employment tribunal in Reading last November ruled that a company hiring an intern on expenses only was in breach of minimum-wage laws. "MPs could get into serious legal trouble," says Whittle. "MPs think that they can pay expenses and say they're voluntary and they'll be protected, but the Reading judgment opened the way for minimum-wage claims. All it would take is one former intern to take them to a tribunal. A case like that could destroy an MP's career."

The reaction of some MPs to paying the minimum wage has been rather incredulous. The campaign group Interns Anonymous recently published a letter from the Conservative MP Philip Hammond that read: "I would regard it as an abuse of taxpayer funding to pay for something that is available for nothing and which other members are obtaining for nothing. I therefore have no intention of changing my present arrangements."

When other politicians were asked for a response, Lammy said that, unfortunately, his ability to pay interns is "constrained by the amount of money provided by the House of Commons", but that parliament should "look seriously at the issues of internships". When Sonnex's story was presented to Conservative campaign headquarters, it said that interns were "volunteers not workers", and that interning is a "great way to get a new generation involved in politics and our democratic process". Hammond declined to make any further comment.

Five a day

Of the interns interviewed for this article, almost all felt that their MPs would like to pay the minimum wage but were unable to do so, as the £100,000 staffing allowance failed to cover basic requirements.

“The staffing allowance allowed only two full-time workers," says 20-year-old Emily Baxter, who worked for a Lib Dem MP in London for two and a half months. "It was nowhere near enough . . . They wanted to pay the interns, but they didn't have the budget. The £5 a day I got for rent, food and transport was not enough, but they had made clear that if that was a problem, they couldn't employ me."

Over the past year, a series of campaigns has been launched to change the system. Interns Anonymous, Carrotworkers' Collective, Internocracy and Intern Aware are all campaigning on the issue and trying to reach out to the wider public. "We're working with university groups across the country, including Bristol and Oxford, to pressure parliament to implement its own minimum-wage legislation," says Intern Aware's co-founder Ben Lyons.

But it would be wrong to dismiss all MPs. Across the parties, 1 per cent of members are paying the minimum wage to interns and campaigning for a better deal. The Lib Dems have been particularly active, with Phil Willis making the case in public, and Evan Harris implementing a policy of paying all his non-student interns the minimum wage. There is, however, a long way to go. If we want parliament to change, and MPs to be more representative of the people they serve, we have to make the doors to our houses of power more accessible.

For more information, visit internaware.org, internocracy.org and internsanonymous.co.uk
Rowenna Davis is a freelance journalist.

 

A Rolls-Royce standard

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, is among the 1 per cent of MPs who pay their interns the minimum wage

“There are three reasons to introduce a formal system that offers interns compensation," he says. "First, being an intern is one of the best ways into employment. Second, unless you have private means or somewhere to crash in London, you can't intern at the House of Commons.

“This seems wrong. Internships at the House should be a Rolls-Royce standard that can set an example - not a privilege.

“Third, paying the minimum wage would enable parliament to have a formal contract about what the internship will deliver to young people. Parliament has always relied on unpaid interns for basic duties, but that doesn't mean it's right.

“If an MP is expecting set responsibilities and set tasks to be completed, then they're contravening minimum-wage legislation by not paying. I pay my interns out of staffing costs and private funds. It's tight, but I think it's worth it to invest in engaging the next generation of young people in politics.

“I hope that, after I leave, the Speaker will put this high on his agenda for the new parliament. I've always cared deeply about young people, and justice for interns is the legacy I'd like to leave the House."

Rowenna Davis

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2010 issue of the New Statesman, IRAN

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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.