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Living with diversity: for a politics of hope without fear

An open letter from the Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe.

Rather like climate change, a quietly brewing concoction of xenophobia, intolerance and fear of difference is threatening the future of Europe. Aggressive political demagoguery drumming up hatred against minorities, immigrants and democracy itself is on the march again. Leading the charge are not only fundamentalist and xenophobic movements, but also, most worryingly, mainstream political forces trying to appease national majorities, looking for a quick fix to address public insecurities related to economic uncertainty, future stability and Europe's place in the world. And, alarmingly, they are proving to be successful. Many people in many European countries are coming to see the stranger and those deemed to be different as a contaminant or threat, much in the same way as Europe did in colonial times and during its dark totalitarian decades prior to 1945.

Fear, suspicion and hatred are becoming everyday public sentiments, legitimating vilification and harsh forms of discipline as normal, breeding on endless talk of greedy asylum seekers, disloyal and seditious immigrants, would-be Muslim terrorists, and an illusory desire to return to founding principles and chauvinistic values. A new lexicon of "us versus them" is being rolled out, blaming the victims of unfettered financial speculation, poverty, inequality, and authoritarianism at a global scale, and pretending to ignore how the contribution of immigrants and refugees has been, is and will remain essential to European social, economic and cultural life. A new mentality of 'catastrophe management' is being promoted, centred on the containment or elimination of the stranger and non-conformist through extensive surveillance, border controls, curtailment of rights, naming and shaming.

This is a dangerous turn, and as in the darkest moments of its history, Europe runs the risk of waking up too late. We are close to the point of no return from a Europe excessively obsessed with diversity and wrongly blaming difference for its problems. These are complex problems, linked to a variety of causes such as deep economic crisis and instability, the impacts of market society on individual and collective responsibility, the absence of a model of belonging appropriate for a plural and open society, the breakdown of comprehensive risk mitigation and social insurance systems, the intensification of a politics of surveillance, normalisation and punishment after 9/11, and nostalgia for a mythical Europe of cosy, homogeneous communities. These problems need to be acknowledged and alternative solutions need to be found; solutions that can harness diversity and difference as a way of facing the future. Otherwise Europe will find itself once again in an age of suspicion and intolerance, with even friends and neighbours becoming enemies as a politics of suspicion and anxiety tightens its grip.

The aim of this 'open letter', which is addressed to publics, opinion-makers and political actors in Europe who value the open and democratic society, is to formulate another way of approaching diversity and difference in Europe. There is considerable latent anxiety over the dark twists and turns we are witnessing in many European countries, but it has yet to stack up into an irreversible clamour for change. This letter might help in raising the tempo. But it is also important that the anxieties and fears on which intolerance and xenophobia feed are not dismissed as irrational, and those who hold them as abnormal, as we frequently find in current anti-racist and anti-fascist protest. The stance of this letter is to acknowledge the unsettlements associated with the profound changes Europe is witnessing, but to seek to dislocate them from their current associations with difference and 'strangers' variously cast and address them, instead, through a politics of solidarity, reciprocal learning and cooperation among all those who find themselves in Europe.

Such dispositions cannot develop in a vacuum. Accordingly this letter traces the outlines of another model of belonging and participation in Europe, one that argues for hope and courage in the face of uncertainty and risk, solidarity and learning as a resource for the future, diversity and cultural pluralism as the status quo, economic fairness, a shared commons at the centre of public policy, and democratic engagement and debate as the staple of political deliberation. In this sense, the letter is a call to European progressive political leaders and representatives, to transcend the short-sighted views and interests that so far have dominated the response both to the economic crisis and to the growing wave of xenophobia and general intolerance vis-à-vis social and cultural diversity.

We call on them to exercise their responsibility to promote and implement legislation and concrete policies consistent with universal human rights, both in Europe itself as well as in the relations and exchanges between Europe and the rest of the world, especially the impoverished societies. That is, legislation and policies geared on the one hand to build on the best European traditions in terms of hospitality, openness to difference, innovation and change, dialogue and democratic engagement, and on the other, in opposition to the colonial and imperial practices still in place, to establish a new set of rules, based on cooperation and reciprocity, in its relations with all those countries where life -human and other- most often is the cheapest commodity.

A Critical Moment for Europe

The enormity of the change sweeping through Europe needs to be recognised with clarity. A hard-won legacy of openness, inclusion and engagement towards the unfamiliar and unexpected is being threatened by a 'catastrophe' approach based on exclusion and the vilification of anything that apparently endangers the customary way of life. Both approaches to change are present in Europe, one looking to the future with courage, curiosity and a desire to evolve, and the other with fear, dread and an anxiety to preserve a privileged but unsustainable way of life.

The inclusive approach is rooted in the principle of provision for an expanding spectrum of social actors at home and abroad, typically through collective negotiation, social insurance, empowerment and education, social cohesion and inclusion, dialogue and democratic engagement. It brings the outside and the foreign into the inside. Europe's long Humanist legacy, aspects of the post-war European social model, and late-20th century recognition of gender, racial, sexual and post-colonial equality by the EU and many member states can be seen as heirs of this tradition.

The catastrophe approach is rooted in the principle of mitigation against hazard and risk through elaborate military-like preparations including disaster planning, warnings of Armageddon, predatory surveillance, restriction of civil liberties, and the violent oppression of dissent, difference and the foreign. The outside must be kept at bay, the enemy must be named, the primitive must be tamed, and tough measures must be taken in the name of social and cultural preservation, collective security and well-being.

This is how Europe justified the exploits of Empire and colony, its differences with the Orient and Islam, its division of the world into superior and inferior races and peoples conveniently colour coded, the brutal suppression of Jews and Roma, and the brutal suppression of dissidents, non-conformists, workers and peasants by different totalitarian regimes. This is how contemporary 'emergency' measures after 9/11, bent on targeting would-be terrorists, unfit citizens and social outcasts through loose proxies such as physical appearance, religious belief, cultural practices, race and ethnicity, social and economic status, can be linked to a dark European legacy based on the demonization of particular types of vulnerable bodies. And this is how the politics of fear is used to curtail not only civic and political rights for the whole society, but also to dismantle the hard-won conquests of the oppressed and exploited in terms of labour conditions and welfare services.

It is not long before this politics of fear and hate, having exhausted the list of easily identifiable scapegoats, will create new divisions in order to sustain itself. It is not long before a biopolitics of fear and resentment that tries to shut out an irreducibly plural and porous world will incapacitate Europe, as the means to engage, to look ahead, to cultivate an ethic of care, empathy and curiosity are lost.

Facing the Future Together

Europe is home today to millions of people from non-European backgrounds, many religious and cultural dispositions, networks of affiliation that stretch right across the globe. It is as much a site of longings rooted in myths of origin and tradition - regional, national and continental - as it is a site of cosmopolitan identities and attachments, a place of plural and hybrid composition, drawing on varied geographies of cultural formation. In such a Europe it makes no sense to close the borders, to play the game of good insiders and bad outsiders, to defend ethnic and cultural purity, to demonise everything alien, to declare the end of secularism. It also makes no sense to valorise an image of European history which is centred upon cultural homogeneity and nationalised 'purity'. Engagements with difference have marked Europe from its earliest days and such engagements are equally unavoidable in the European present and in any image of its shared future.

There is no denying that these are turbulent times, riddled with large and often unforeseen risks and hazards thrown up by the entanglements of an unregulated and interdependent world. Those risks, however, have much more to do with the uncontrolled movements of speculative financial capital and global economic integration than with the over-controlled displacements of migrants and refugees trying to reach a destination to work and live with dignity, the vast majority of whom are moving within their countries of origin and within the south of the planet. Governance has become an art of trial and error, making the best of an imperfect and fully unknowable world. Risks quickly multiply, mutate, cross borders, and this no doubt worries governments and publics seeking certitude and a secure future. But uncertainty, escalation and imprecision - all requiring the need to act in new ways - should neither be read as unavoidable catastrophes, nor, most importantly, as problems that can be resolved through a politics of retrenchment, generalised fear and militarisation; a politics of harming some bodies for the safety of others. They also represent new opportunities, new prospects on a future in the making.

Europe has to find a way of tackling hazard, risk and uncertainty by harnessing rather than rejecting diversity and difference; by inventing new solidarities rather than craving for an uncontaminated future; by cultivating an ethos of hope, shared ground and common purpose rather than one of hate and division; by accepting that acting in an uncertain world requires the wit, imagination and effort of all stakeholders rather than the designs and impositions of so-called experts and tough leaders; by realising that the negotiation of complexity and interdependence - the world as it has become - requires an attitude of pragmatic experimentalism, continuous learning and negotiation, rather than a stance of heroic certitude and unbending projection.

A start on this difficult but necessary journey to rethink how best to live in a plural and uncertain world is to jettison a culture of emergency management through obsessive surveillance and control. What is needed, instead, is to clarify why democracy, inclusion, empowerment, fairness and social justice for the many and not only the few - in Europe and beyond - is a precondition for dealing positively with uncertainty and change. New work is required to show with conviction and evidence that gender, class, racial and sexual equality are a good thing, that access for all to the means of well-being in a society releases new capabilities and reduces envy and resentment, that full-blown democracy involving universal rights, representation, popular participation and public scrutiny spreads responsibility and checks power abuses, that investing in the collective infrastructure shared by all and in future sustainability reduces fear and anxiety along with underpinning a sense of the shared turf, that widespread economic opportunity, parity and security can reduce conflict and disaffection.

These cannot remain empty phrases, but must form part of a new and passionately felt politics of social inclusion and justice that is not just whispered from the sidelines, but can demonstrate that there are significant gains to be made by majorities and minorities, citizens and residents, and above all, society as a whole. This is not an argument for a simple return to the welfare state. Times have changed, and past effort was not without its problems. Only too frequently, states and elites rolled out giant programmes in the name of equality that fell far short, while majorities continued to discriminate against minorities, outsiders, and the vulnerable under the guise of universalism and collectivism.

Towards a Politics of the Commons

The challenge of bridging similarity and difference, the particular and the common, the familiar and the strange thus remains an unresolved challenge, as does the need to show how such bridging is the road to peace, progress and understanding in a turbulent world. These are difficult issues that need to be addressed through collective debate over the concerns at stake, through public ownership of and conviction in the justice of the proposals put forward. Otherwise the proposals - no matter how sophisticated or persuasive - will be rejected as impositions.

A start can be made, however, by indicating the kind of ethos that is needed to face the future through diversity and difference. First, it must be an ethos of hope not fear, trust not suspicion, reciprocity not domination, dialogue not condemnation, and negotiation not aggression. Secondly, it must be an ethos of finding vision in the dark through many eyes and torches held by many hands, united by belief in the benefits that come from unity and solidarity, but also by the knowledge that the way can never be fully illuminated, is full of pit holes and dangers to be negotiated through common concerns. Thirdly, therefore, it must be an ethos of pragmatic learning, trial and error, but clear about the principles of the open society and the Charter of Human Rights that cannot be violated. This includes pressing for the complete dismantlement of the catastrophe mentality and its infrastructure. These three dimensions of an ethos of shared concern, mutual engagement and pragmatic learning should be the basis on which a sense of 'the European' should emerge.

The problems of race, ethnicity and culture that have come so much to centre stage in the politics of catastrophe management need to be put back in place by making space for a wider frame of collective reference and shared ambition, itself understood to require the effort of all members of a society. An ethic of care for the commons has to lie at the centre of an inclusive and non-fearful politics of preparedness for the future,
harnessing difference and pluralism for common benefit, proposing shared injuries, concerns and injustices as political demands, rather than divisive accusations.

Pragmatically, this means pressing for particular keywords such as hospitality, fairness, solidarity and mutuality as the prime colours of the open society; debated in the public arena, used as the measure of things by people and institutions. It also means publicising something that Europe has excelled in historically, which is the tradition of nurturing public space and public infrastructures open to and shared by all. The achievements of public libraries, squares and parks, public education, health and transport services and facilities cannot be underestimated, especially when these spaces are used and appreciated by all. They are the formative ground of citizenship and a respect for shared resources.

Then, it means advocacy for a vibrant public sphere, a variety of modes of collective communication, an instinct of taking things of social interest into the public arena. So, instead of burying latent concerns or new policies being introduced by stealth, challenges, threats and risks are here named, debated and subjected to democratic scrutiny. It means seeking unity in difference through a politics of shared concerns, common problems made visible (such as housing and well-being, employment, security, urban services, the quality of the environment, future sustainability, and so on), so that the concerns that face us all can become the basis for collective understanding and solidarity.

Finally, it means organising to protect the commons. Much is said today about the need to protect the environment against pollution and consumption. Our children may have little air to breathe in times to come if we continue to disregard nature. But there is more of the commons to protect, raising once again old questions of ownership and stewardship that will not go away. Banking reforms, redistributive justice, corporate social responsibility, public ownership and control, the democratic accountability of public communications, work for all, fair wages, universal insurance, building capability, regulatory reform, the social economy, and other aspects of the economy organised for meeting needs and spreading rewards, are all part and parcel of a much needed new politics of diversity. It is through such reforms that future growth can be directed to the many and not only the few, and for outcomes that address envy and enmity. Europe's political classes seem to have forgotten this link, made so clear after the war in the effort made by states and progressive movements to repair the economy and the commons as the way forward for both prosperity and solidarity.

This letter is a call to intervene, to revive an old tradition in Europe to question, to dissent. It proposes that living with difference in Europe should be seen as an opportunity to face the future together, in mutual respect.

Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe

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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.

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“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.”

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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.”

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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.