Interview: Jon Cruddas

Tony Blair's former aide is standing as the people's choice and has little time for his cabinet riva

Jon Cruddas is not a household name, but he may yet become one. The MP for Dagenham has a strategy for reviving the Labour Party and, heaven knows, it needs one. At the same time, he is making himself noticed. The man who worked for years behind the scenes in Tony Blair's office is poised to become an important figure in the new world of Gordon Brown.

The outsider in the deputy leader contest does Jeremiah politics to good effect. A month or so ago, just as his campaign was getting going, he warned that if the party continued to haemorrhage members at the current rate, it would have none left by the year 2013. He believes Labour must turn once more to grass-roots campaigning on issues that can fire the passions of a new generation: the rise of the British National Party, traditional causes such as inequality and poverty and, more boldly, the rights of migrants. All of these are acute problems in his area.

As we sit down with him at Westminster, he seeks to enlist our support for a nationwide campaign, Stopthebnp.org.uk, which seeks to take on the BNP ahead of the local elections in May. It will not focus necessarily on key marginals or councils where Labour is fighting for control - places where the party machine would usually direct its resources. But Cruddas does not see the rise of the BNP as a fringe issue. For him, this is a front-line struggle to win back alienated Labour voters who risk being lost to the far right.

Cruddas is an engaging but curious mix. He talks half in the language of Warwick University philosophy postgraduate: "post-party", "virtual politics", "parallel universe", "rational choice economics" and, yes, "endogenous". The other half of his conversation is political agitprop, with an accent some in his party suspect might have been estuarised in recent years. He talks credibly of the need for Labour to focus again on local parties and trade-union branches, where he believes it belongs. He argues that the government's obsession with building a meritocracy, creating opportunities for the talented or fortunate, has made society less equal. In place of this, he proposes a model of "social solidarity" where interest groups ally to improve conditions for everyone. "We don't live in a classless meritocratic new Labour nirvana, right?"

Even though he believes the entire economic underpinning of Blairite thinking is flawed, Cruddas talks warmly of his four years as trade-union linkman at No 10. "It was a fantastic privilege. There was an energy there." Whatever the ideological differences, he refuses to doubt the integrity of anybody he worked with. When we ask him about the police investigation into loans for honours, he says: "I wouldn't question the ethics of anyone involved. Everyone I met, irrespective of whether I agreed with them politically, was in it for the right reasons." Like many, he has little experience of the world outside politics: he joined Labour as a political officer in his twenties and worked for successive party general secretaries. His decision to become an MP was almost inevitable and he was duly elected as the member for Dagenham at the 2001 election.

Cruddas says he was prompted to join the race by a conversation with a cabinet minister who told him that grass-roots politics was dead. Perhaps his close relationship with the party explains his distress at how the Labour movement has lost its way. He describes the decision to introduce tuition fees as "the most regressive piece of economic and social policy any Labour government has ever introduced".

Cruddas is the son of a sailor, and made his way to university along with his working-class siblings from a Catholic comprehensive near Portsmouth. He was a tuition-fee rebel, despite years of loyalism, because he believed the government was selling a false promise of future affluence to children from working-class families. He believed the prospect of years of debt would dissuade people like his parents from allowing their children to apply to university.

Cruddas talks passionately about the need for Labour to reform its structures and become, once more, a genuinely federal party that can re-enfranchise its members. It is more difficult to pin him down on specific policies. After some prompting, he outlines six ideas. He would reverse immigration legislation that clamps down on employers using illegal migrants and instead regularise their status in the UK, to help prevent them being exploited on starvation wages. In health, he would publicise per-capita health inequality in every primary care trust and make it the duty of each trust to close the gap. In what amounts to a direct challenge to Gordon Brown he says: "You cannot construct a choice-based agenda in health where you have no base camp of equality of provision in terms of primary care." On education, he would not turn back the clock on city academies and independent trust schools, but he would end the present system whereby local authorities are penalised for not embracing these institutions by having funding for building new schools removed.

He goes on. He would institute what he calls "a real-time demographic picture of the country". Cruddas claims that the current census does not account for between 10 and 15 per cent of the population in urban areas, which makes it difficult for local authorities to plan services. His most challenging proposal is perhaps his most simple. "Build council houses," he says. "This is so obvious." Cruddas argues that in and around London especially, the large influx of people, coupled with vast tracts of brownfield land should free councils to build new social housing.

As the lone backbencher in a field of five, Cruddas enjoys a freedom to speak out that is harder for the rest (not that our previous two interviewees seemed bothered). Until now, the campaign has been a civilised affair, but Cruddas decides to take the gloves off. He suggests his rivals are looking for any excuse - wait till Blair has left, or till the local elections are over, or don't rock the boat - to avoid a public debate with him.

Indeed, it was this very accusation, made in the NS in December by a Cruddas ally, which drew such an angry response from the other candidates that they all volunteered to be interviewed by us. But Cruddas is not satisfied: "We're going to lose this opportunity to renew the party. The remedy is to use the deputy leadership to get them all to resign." He says: "They should all walk out and we should all have a genuine debate, rather than all this briefing, leaking and playing both sides: in the cabinet and simultaneously out of the cabinet."

He is scathing about the others' apparent conversion. "They're playing smoke and mirrors to find themselves. After ten years of doing the nodding-dog routine, they try to reinvent themselves as more radical."

Like his opponents, Cruddas is reinventing himself as a radical, but perhaps he has less of a journey to travel. Even though he is given little chance of winning the contest, he has already changed the terms of debate. And he is not prepared to let matters rest there. The transformation of Labour into a more open, democratic and progressive party, he believes, begins, not ends, with Brown's accession. He claims he has yet to decide whether even to vote for him. "I want to hear what John McDonnell has to say, or anyone else who comes in, like Michael Meacher."

He says that unlike his cabinet rivals, he has no desire to ingratiate himself with the new master. "It's slightly unedifying that all the other candidates seem to be in a bidding war to proclaim who's said the nicest things to Gordon Brown. I think he's an outstanding politician, but I want to contest some of the terms of the debate."

Jon Cruddas: the CV
Born 7 April 1962, Helston, Cornwall
1989 Begins work for Labour as policy officer
1990 Gains philosophy PhD from Warwick University
1992 Marries a Labour official, Anna Healy
1994 Chief assistant to Labour general secretary Larry Whitty, then Tom Sawyer
1997 Becomes deputy political secretary to the Prime Minister, acting as link with the trade unions
June 2001 Elected MP for Dagenham. Quickly gains reputation for fight against BNP in his constituency
January 2004 Rebels against tuition fees
September 2006 Announces candidacy for Labour's deputy leadership
November 2006 Appointed chair of the London group of Labour MPs
Research by Lucy Knight

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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.

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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.