The politics of excitement

The Blair decade began with an exuberant rush of energy and sense of possibility. How can politics r

Ian McEwan's latest novel, On Chesil Beach, returns us to the summer of 1962, and to the hopes and aspirations of a young, newly married couple in a stilted and repressed Britain that is soon to be transformed for ever by the political and cultural turbulence of what we simply know now as "the Sixties". They are from respectable, upper-middle-class families, and yet they long for convulsive change and a new kind of politics.

"Edward and Florence would be voting for the first time in the next general election and were keen on the idea of a Labour landslide," McEwan writes. "In a year or two, the older generation that still dreamed of Empire must surely give way to politicians like Gaitskell, Wilson, Crosland - new men with a vision of a modern country . . . If America could have an exuberant and handsome President Kennedy, then Britain could have something similar - at least in spirit, for there was no one quite so glamorous in the Labour Party."

In the event, Labour won the general election of 1964, but it was no landslide. We had to wait two more years for a more comprehensive victory, in the election of March 1966. We had to wait even longer, until the emergence of Tony Blair, for a truly exuberant and glamorous leader who, for a short, tantalising period, seemed to embody all our yearning and desire for pro gressive change, beguiling us with his vision of a modern country. If he was not quite our Kennedy, he was something entirely new in British political history.

His extraordinary popularity did not last. In retrospect, it could not have lasted, because party politics is, ultimately, not about ideals and truth; it is about compromise and obfuscation. It's about being pragmatic, and working out what is and what is not possible in a capitalist liberal democracy in an age of globalisation, and of intense media scrutiny, when the richest members of any society are intent on paying as little tax as possible and the rest of us often demand of others what we are not prepared to do ourselves.

Yet those early weeks that followed the Labour landslide in May 1997, with their jingly-jangly Britpop soundtrack, now have a strange, drifting, dreamlike quality, as if we were all high on the opiate of change and possibility, as if we had all been sprinkled with a kind of magic dust. How different Tony Blair seemed from the grey man he had replaced at Downing Street: he was our first politician-as-celebrity, articulate in the language of popular culture, at ease on television, whatever the cultural register of the programme on which he found himself, relaxed in the company of rock stars and the new rich, and apparently uninhibited by the old class anxieties.

"London swings again!" announced Vanity Fair in 1997 on the cover of an issue showing the then husband-and-wife partnership of Patsy Kensit and Oasis's Liam Gallagher lying on a bed, wrapped in a Union Jack duvet. According to Newsweek, London was the most exciting city on the planet, offering a "hip compromise between the non-stop newness of Los Angeles and the aspic-preserved beauty of Paris - sharpened to New York's edge".

We were living through the historical moment known as Cool Britannia when, for the first time in my lifetime, mainstream party politics had something of the allure of rock'n'roll, and Labour was the hegemonic power. In July 1997, Noel Gallagher of Oasis and Alan McGee, founder of Creation Records, the band's record label, were among numerous arts celebrities invited along for a drinks party at 10 Downing Street. Afterwards, Gallagher, who was photographed drinking champagne and chatting with Blair in one of the defining images of that year, and indeed of the entire new Labour first term, announced that "Blair's the man! Power to the people."

Not long after that Downing Street party, I received a call from an old university friend. He is a remote and austere figure, religious and resolutely uninterested in the culture at large. But that afternoon he wanted only to talk about the new government, its promise, its sense of purpose, its "ethical" foreign policy, however misunderstood that notion turned out to be. Like so many of us, my friend believed in Tony Blair and in his mission to remake the country. He knew nothing of the dirt, struggle, grind and compromise of political life. What he did know was this: that there was a sense of optimism in the country such as he had never experienced before, and it was leading him away from his books and music and back into an active engagement with wider society.

Nowadays, once more in retreat, my friend seldom speaks about politics, except in distraction and sorrow. He would have enjoyed last week's issue of this magazine, grandly titled "Blair: the reckoning". The presiding tone was one of powerful regret, and even of rage. The political philosopher John Gray predicated that, after ten years in power, Blair would "bequeath to Labour a long sojourn in the wilderness". The barrister Helena Kennedy suggested that, with the "war, the erosion of liberty, the absence of egalitarianism", Blair had "blown it". The writer Natasha Walter was even more direct: Blair, with blood on his hands, was "truly evil". And so it went on: so much sadness and loss in this shadowland.

Much of what I read struck me as ludicrously pessimistic, the usual leftist dissatisfaction at the failures of a Labour government to liberate itself from the influence and hold of the United States and effect a radical remodelling of society.

"New Labour suffered from an exaggerated sense of expectation, just as it is now suffering from an exaggerated sense of disillusionment," says Matthew Taylor, a former director of policy at 10 Downing Street who is now running the RSA, the royal society for the arts.

"We are always that much more disillusioned by the failures of parties of the left, because we expect so much more of them," says Peter Wilby, who has published a study of Anthony Eden and the politics of the 1950s. "I recall how excited I was when Wilson came to power, ending 13 years of Tory rule. I felt that sense of excitement and possibility much more strongly in 1964 than in 1997, when I didn't have past disillusionment to mollify my enthusiasms."

More substance

This seems to me an important observation - and one that, in addition to anger at the catas trophe of Iraq, helps to explain why there will be little fanfare to accompany Gordon Brown's arrival at Downing Street. Disillusionment has mollified our enthusiasms. Our expectations are no longer so unrealistic. The magic dust has long since been removed from our eyes.

Brown understands this, which is why he has talked about a turn towards a less ostentatious and frivolous style of politics. "I think we're moving from this period when, if you like, celebrity matters, when people have become famous for being famous," he told the Guardian. "I think you can see that in other countries, too - people are moving away from that to what lies behind the character and the personality."

Less celebrity and more substance: is this what we now want from our politicians in the immediate post-Blair period? Can this move away from celebrity, if it is really happening at all, help to reinvigorate our interest in mainstream party politics?

Matthew Taylor, for one, believes that we are experiencing what he calls a profound shift in our politics. "People don't want politics to be about something government does to them; they want it to be about how life and society feels to them. We need to be less government-centric, and begin to speak more about the kind of society we want to live in and what we can do as citizens to achieve it. For too long there's been a social aspiration gap - between the society we want to live in, and the society we are able to create through our actions. I think David Cameron is closer to articulating this shift than any other politician. Of course, being in opposition allows him the freedom to speak as he does."

In conversation, Taylor uses phrases such as "civic altruism" and "citizen voluntarism". He asks how we can "reconceptualise social change" and calls on "citizens" to be more "self-sufficient". What he is proposing is a different "model of democracy" from what we have now: less centralised and more flexible, and one that demands more responsibility and participation from the citizen. This seems appropriate for an internet-dominated culture, which offers so many ways of social networking and methods of instant communication: the email, the text, the blog, the chatroom. After all, among the most popular sites on the web - YouTube, MySpace, Facebook - are those for which the content is mostly provided by users, and which encourage not passive consumption, but active responsibility and interaction.

"There is a long-term secular trend of disengagement from party politics," Taylor says. "In this sense, the period from 1994 to 1997, associated with the political phenomenon that was new Labour, was a blip. I think people felt in 1992 that they had been conned in some way into voting Conservative, and they didn't want that to happen again. They became engaged. But we must distinguish between cycles and trends. The new Labour phenomenon was a cycle. The trend is towards disengagement."

In 2005, the journalist John Harris published a book called So Now Who Do We Vote For?, which was about his own alienation from and disillusionment with the new Labour project. An earlier book by Harris, The Last Party, had smartly chronicled the rise of Britpop and explained how the movement, if it could be so described, began to fracture as soon as it became associated with the Labour Party and with Tony Blair in particular. The NME led the counter-attack against the government in its celebrated issue of March 1998, with the dramatic cover line: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" The subhead was: "Rock'n'roll takes on the government."

The NME is notoriously impatient and capricious. It was inevitable that, before too long, it would turn against Blair and his new Labour Party. But few could have predicted how quickly the magazine would position itself in opposition to the government; that party at Downing Street with Noel Gallagher was at once the apotheosis and the beginning of the end of the cult of Cool Britannia. It was indeed the last party.

"I was 27 in 1997, and I was caught up in the euphoria of Labour's victory," Harris says now. "When I wrote Now Who Do We Vote For? I felt terribly disillusioned with politics, and shut out and at odds with the new Labour project. I felt the lunatic Blairite fringe was winning."

He is less disengaged now. "I've rejoined the party, yes. I no longer feel that modern social democracy is a cause that has been lost. Ed Mili band, Yvette Cooper, Ed Balls - you feel that they're committed to social democracy. I'm guardedly optimistic that we can begin to have a conversation again. What I want from politics - and this is the way to get young people more interested again - is to have a clearer sense of difference, of a clash of conflicting ideologies.

"We've got to get away from fake politics. Across the world, when people feel there's something at stake, turnout rises at elections, as it did in France. Watching the French presidential elections - the dialogue taking place between Nicolas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal - you had a sense of something meaningful being talked about. They were talking about what kind of society France should become in relation to globalisation. And you had a clear sense of choice between the two."

Genuine policy differences, opposing ideologies, class conflicts, a clash of ideas: these are what first attracted me as a teenager to politics in the early 1980s, as Margaret Thatcher radicalised wider society with her market reforms and ideologically driven attack on the postwar consensus. The Labour Party moved, disastrously, leftwards in response to Thatcherism, and the divided party had to split as well as suffer many defeats and humiliations before it began to make its long journey back to the political centre, a position from which it could once more contemplate winning elections.

Can party politics ever be cool again? That, I think, is the wrong question, especially if being cool means drinks parties with rock stars at Downing Street as well as winning and maintaining the support of the NME. In fact, to be cool is, almost by definition, to be fleetingly fashionable. Far better, as Gordon Brown understands, to be a politician of moral authority and of permanent ethical values.

There is no doubt that even as membership of political parties continues to fall exponentially - Labour would not tell us for this piece how many of its members are aged 35 or under - engagement with political issues, such as climate change and third world debt and poverty, continues to rise. There is a craving for seriousness, for hard political action, would that we were prepared to grasp it and act, in the image of Taylor's active and responsible citizens.

At present, Westminster politics is defined by its ideological convergence; there is very little difference between Blair's Labour and Cameron's new-model, more socially liberal Conservatives. With the arrival of Gordon Brown as prime minister, and with the nationalists so strong in Scotland, we may be entering a period of upheaval, with the Labour government defining itself not so much against the Con servatives, the official opposition, as against its previous leader. Tony Blair was our first true politician-as-celebrity, and we once loved him unwisely and too well, just as we now loathe him ardently and, perhaps, too much.

Jason Cowley is the newly appointed editor of Granta magazine

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?

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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.