What's up, Comrade Bush?

Cajoled for years to take on Western-style economic liberalism there's more than a wry smile on the

The irony has not been lost on the political leaders of Latin America’s insurgent left movements that the governments of Europe and the US are now taking measures that involve far deeper state intervention in the economy than actions they themselves used to harshly criticize when attempted in other regions.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez joked that George Bush “is finally beginning to understand the road to socialism” and notes that “he isn’t criticized for nationalizing the largest bank in the world.”

“What’s up, Comrade Bush,”* he said.

Jabs coming from the leaders of left-leaning governments, which now run the vast majority of the countries of Latin America, have flowed freely as they feel vindicated in their criticisms of neoliberal policy prescriptions and as some of their interventions into their economies have sheltered them to some extent from the colossal global crisis.

But they are coupled with a deepening of resentment over the vigour and force with which certain forms of free-market policies were proposed to them in the last thirty years, often imposed as the necessary conditions for crucial loans from international organizations such as the IMF.

Their anger at opposition coming from the north to their recent attempts to re-introduce elements of regulation and protection into their economies has only intensified as global market forces and unrestricted capitalism brought even the most powerful states in the world to their knees.

Soon after important election victories for the left in Ecuador and Paraguay, the influence of neoliberal economic and ideas and of the United States, already by all accounts at an all-time low, have taken another hit in the region with the economic crisis.

John Ross, who along with Ken Livingstone is providing advice to the Venezuelan government, said that “they have abandoned every policy that they've advocated that other governments should follow over the past 20 years. And they've adopted the measures that they've condemned other governments for taking.”*

These sentiments are echoed by even the most centrist of the region’s left-of-centre governments, such as Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva. "We did our homework — and they didn't, they who've been telling us for three decades what to do,” he complained.

And the normally reserved Chilean president Michele Bachelet felt secure enough in the changed political climate to make the following joke, in the US, about the country’s history of intervention in the region.

“Why has there never been a coup in the United States?” she asked a group of investors.
“Because there is no U.S. embassy in the United States.”

Bachelet, the country’s first female president and member of the Socialist Party, was imprisoned and tortured by the government of Augusto Pinochet who took power in a US-supported military coup in 1973.

She was forced into exile as the government killed thousands of supporters of the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende. The Pinochet government ruthlessly imposed neoliberal prescriptions and counted on Milton Friedman as an economic consultant.

But in the case of Chile at least the country did experience strong economic growth during the dictatorship. However, the movement of left leaders elected in the last ten years in the region was a self-conscious movement against neoliberalism, which in most cases led to unprecedented levels of inequality and historically low rates of economic growth in Latin America.

In many cases these polices were imposed under duress when these countries had their own crises. In 1982 when many Latin American countries defaulted on their huge debts to the developed world, rescue packages from international organizations influenced by the governments of Reagan and Thatcher were conditional on the acceptance of austere structural adjustment programs.

In theaftermath of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the response from the IMF caused many commentators, especially in Asia, to complain that the measures imposed would never be so harsh if something similar happened in the West. Now that it has, leaders of the Latin American left are seeing it this way and many are disgusted at how easily the banks and rich are getting off.

Nicaraguan Congressman Edwin Castro said that "We think the Bush administration should follow the same policies that they and the International Monetary Fund have always told us to follow when we have economic problems.

"One of our economists was telling us that Bush has just implemented communism for the rich."

The Nicaraguan party to which Castro belongs is the Sandinistas, the leftist party violently opposed by the Reagan-backed Contras in the 1980s and which returned to power in 2006.

Hugo Chavez, elected in Venezuela in 1998, was the first of these left-leaning leaders to come to the fore and receives the lion’s share of attention due to his country’s oil money and his unique and controversial approach to public speaking. But since then, left-of-centre governments have also come to power in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and most recently, Paraguay.

Though the region will certainly be hurt by depressed commodity prices, to the extent that these governments have been able to push reforms past local and international opposition, taking forms ranging from political opposition, military coups to threats of capital flight, they have ironically served to insulate them somewhat from the current crisis.

For example, the FT’s Benedict Mander called the Caracas stock exchange an “oasis of calm” due to the country’s currency controls, implemented in 2003.

Reuters pointed out that: “Venezuela has suffered little direct effect from the market chaos because Chavez nationalised the most important companies that once traded on the minuscule Caracas stock exchange and because its currency is fixed by exchange controls.”

These kinds of economic policies, like those of Ecuador’s recently approved new constitution which allows greater government control over banks, are the exact opposite of the unregulated free-market policies promoted quite powerfully by international organizations and institutions influenced by the U.S., Europe and Japan. And pushing them through required facing stiff international opposition.

Eric Wingerter of left-leaning Latin America blog borev.net raised a comparison between the financial sector’s treatment praise of the U.S.’s recent forced nationalization of major banks and its reaction to Hugo Chavez’s decision two months ago to purchase a single and profitable bank on the open market.

The Wall Street Journal then claimed that move could lead to “mass withdrawls” that could “snowball into a systemic bank run that puts the economy and political system at play.”

Policymakers and analysts in the US and Europe will probably be concentrating on their own countries for the next weeks, or perhaps months. But if they ever turn back to Latin America, they will find they face a very difficult task if they would like to restore their credibility.

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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 “Apple” 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.