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Empowerment: The new political territory

Gordon Brown talks of placing power in the hands of people themselves, but a splurge of Whitehall in

In the 20th century the key political battleground in British politics was the relationship between the state and the citizen. Labour traditionally favoured the collective, the Conservatives the individual. New Labour realigned those ancient nostrums by becoming as comfortable with the notion of aspiration as redistribution. This change allowed us to claim victory in the battle of ideas over the past decade. The challenges we are now witnessing in the 21st century call for further change. Victory in the battle of ideas over the next decade will go to the party that can facilitate a paradigm shift in the relationship between state and citizen.

Interestingly, all three main political parties are toying with the notion of moving power from one to the other. Nick Clegg wants a "People's NHS" to realign the Liberal Democrats as less big-state and more individual-citizen, but many in his party oppose such talk. David Cameron talks of "shifting power from the state" to charities and communities, but they simply lack the capacity to deal with the modern challenges brought by a globalised economy and a diversified society. And while it is welcome that Gordon Brown embraces "a new politics that places power . . . in the hands of people themselves", a splurge of Whitehall initiatives seems to point in the opposite direction. This half-in, half-out approach won't work. Uncertainty has to make way for clarity.

Some of new Labour's most senior and thoughtful leaders are arguing the case for change and suggesting how it might be done. They are calling for a new marriage between an active state and active citizens, with each empowering the other. There are three principal reasons - at least from the point of view of progressive politics - for leading this change.

The case for change

The first is born of failure: the growing gap between politics and the public. In the UK, membership of political parties has halved in the past 25 years. But our country is far from alone in witnessing record levels of cynicism and disengagement. Average turnout at national elections across the OECD has fallen by 10 per cent in just 20 years. And yet, in many respects, public involvement in civil society is increasing, not diminishing. Half of all Britons volunteer regularly. Over one-third of people who don't vote at general elections do participate in a charity, community group or campaign. Alternative forms of political activity - whether boycotting goods or lobbying MPs - is rising, not falling. And while 61 per cent of people do not believe they can influence decisions about their local area, 63 per cent say they are prepared to do so. My conclusion is that the public is not so much turned off by politics, as by the way politics is done. Or, for that matter, the way public services are run. Public disengagement is a symptom of disempowerment. Too often we shut people out when we should be letting them in.

Our political system was framed in an era of elitism, when rulers ruled and the ruled were grateful

Second, such a change is in keeping with the times. In a world of massive insecurity and constant change, people are looking for greater control in their lives. At the same time, public expectations have rightly moved up a gear. People nowadays are more informed and inquiring. Ordinary consumers are getting a taste for greater power and more say. The problem, a decade after Bill Clinton declared an end to the era of big government, is that while people may have become more empowered as consumers, they do not yet feel empowered as citizens. Ours remains a "them and us" political system. It was framed in an era of elitism. Rulers ruled - and the ruled were grateful. Economic advance and universal education have swept aside both deference and ignorance. Now the internet redistributes knowledge and offers us the chance of being active parti cipants rather than passive bystanders. These changes open up the potential for a more participatory form of democracy.

Third, equity demands that it should be so. Despite rises in living standards and falls in poverty in the past decade, a deep inequality gap still scars our country. We all pay the price: the wasted potential of the alienated young; the taxpayers who pay the price of social failure; and the decent, hard-working families that live in fear of crime. Over many decades social mobility slowed down when it ought to have been speeding up. Action by this government has halted that process. The glass ceiling has been raised, but it has not yet been broken.

I believe it can only be done by shifting the focus beyond the welfare-state solution of retrospectively correcting the symptoms of inequality - such as low wages and family poverty - towards an approach that proactively deals with the roots of disadvantage before they become entrenched. By cutting taxes for the low-paid. By giving more people a real stake in society. By enabling people, regardless of wealth or status, to take greater control over their lives. By recognising that it is power that needs to be more fairly shared in our society. The sense of hopelessness that clouds the poorest communities in our country grows out of disempowerment. Of course beating crime, creating jobs and rebuilding estates can help. But I believe that this cloud of despondency can only be dispelled through a modern, participatory politics that allows both local communities and individual citizens to share more evenly and directly in power.

These fundamental shifts in the structure and culture of 21st-century Britain call for new Labour to resolve its ambivalence about the modern roles of the state and the citizen. From the mid-19th century the state took on more responsibilities. In large part this accretion of power was necessary and it was right. State action was needed to guarantee clean water and safe streets. The expansion of a market economy relied on legal rights and clear rules which, again, only the state could uphold. And in the creation of the welfare state - with its jewel in the crown, the National Health Service - the state offered equity and security as an antidote to the deprivation and injustice of an era of economic upheaval and total war in a way that charitable endeavour and employer philanthropy could never hope to match.

And yet, by the last quarter of the 20th century, it was becoming clear that too much state could be as bad as too little. When Labour got on the wrong side of that argument, we lost. The Berlin Wall was about to tumble and with it the ideological perversity of state communism. In econo mic policy, western governments had demonstrated a poor record of picking winners, but losers had developed a consistent habit of picking governments. State regulation had come to stifle market innovation. So, in the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s - most notably the privatisation programme - power was moved from the state to the market. And in the new Labour reforms of this century - most notably the creation of institutions such as an independent Bank of England, NHS foundation hospitals, city academies and now trust schools - power has been moved again from the state to new service providers. What neither Thatcherism nor Blair ism has successfully done is moved power from the state to the individual or to the community.

Labour's choice

For the past decade new Labour has been caught between two philosophical traditions: a Fabian social-democratic model, where progress is secured through the state exercising power on behalf of citizens, and a mutual model, where it is secured not through the state controlling, but the state empowering communities and citizens to realise their own advance. Of course these traditions share common ends - the eradication of poverty, for example - but they prioritise different means: the dispensing of state benefits on the one side and the opening up of educational opportunities on the other. The twin changes we are now witnessing - globalised economies and assertive citizens - call for this decades-long divide between statists and mutualists to be resolved decisively in favour of the latter.

Too often, governments - including new Lab our - have fallen for the fallacy that once the commanding heights of the state have been seized through periodic elections, progressive change automatically follows. In truth this works neither for citizens nor for governments. People are left confused and disempowered. Governments end up nationalising responsibility when things go wrong without necessarily having the levers to put them right. Progress in the future depends on sharing responsibility with citizens so that they become insiders, not outsiders.

None of this suggests the state has no role. Quite the reverse. Economic uncertainty and mass migration, global warming and global terror make the case for an active state. People want to know they are not alone. But they also want to control their own destiny. So the modern state has to step forward where citizens individually cannot act - providing collective security and opportunity - but step back where citizens in dividually can - exercising personal choice and responsibility.

Cameron and his Conservative Party have drawn the wrong conclusion from the modern world. It is not an active state or active citizens that are needed to meet the challenges of the modern world. It is both. It is only the state that can equalise opportunities throughout life and empower its citizens. Equally, only citizens can seize those opportunities and realise their own aspirations to progress. The right wrongly rejects the state's role. What is needed is a different sort of state: one that empowers, not controls.

A future agenda

This narrative should run through government policy like through a stick of rock. A new assumption should guide the whole government's policy: power should be located at the lowest possible level consistent with the wider public good. That would involve Whitehall being scaled back. Local police and health services would be made directly accountable to local people through the ballot box. Local councils would be freed from much central government control as their system of financing moved from national taxes to local ones, with local communities having the right through referenda to determine locally decided tax rates. As in the United States, Canada, Australia and many other countries, locally elected bodies would be able to borrow either from the markets or through local bond issues. The aim would be to get local services better attuned to the needs of local communities.

The right wrongly rejects the state’s role. What is needed is a different sort of state: one that empowers, not controls

Where local services are failing, communities would have the legal right to have them replaced. Community courts and restorative justice should spearhead a reinvigorated effort to deter and prevent antisocial behaviour. A new form of public ownership - community-run mutual organi sations - could take over the running of local services such as children's centres, estates and parks. And, as individual citizens, parents would get new powers to choose schools and NHS patients to choose treatments. People in old age, those with a long-term condition, families with disabled children or people in training could choose their own publicly funded budgets instead of conventionally provided services.

Progressive politics cannot stand still. It is the Conservatives' job to conserve. Labour must always be a party of change. Our own recent history tells us this is so. After we lost the 1992 election, many people thought they would never see a Labour government again. What changed was that we did. Building on the efforts of Neil Kinnock and John Smith, Tony Blair's courage in transforming his party was a first step to us winning power. We should never forget that lesson. One of new Labour's key strengths has been its preparedness to face future challenges rather than taking comfort in past achievements. Our willingness to change has forced even our most strident opponents into contemplating changes they once thought abhorrent. Now change beckons once again.

In the past decade we have made good progress as a nation in reducing poverty, improving services and creating jobs. A decade ago, those were the principal challenges we as a country faced. Today there is, of course, more to do on each of those fronts, but in addition there are new challenges to meet. In this new world the old top-down approach to governance will no longer work. It is not just that the public has reached the limits of what it will pay in taxes, although it has. People in low- and middle-income families are under pressure and feeling the pinch, so, inevitably, public spending growth in the period ahead will be lower than in the period just gone. But it is also that, just as the global credit crunch and its consequences have exposed the limits of untrammelled free markets, so the entrenched problems of social exclusion in so many communities and unfulfilled potential among so many of our citizens expose the limits of centralised state action.

What made for progress in the past will not secure progress in the future. What is now needed is an approach in which doing things with people rather than to them becomes the key to unlocking progress, whether that is improving health, fighting crime, regenerating neighbourhoods or protecting the environment.

Just as at other points in our history an old orthodoxy has been swept away by a new one, so I believe this is an idea whose time has come. In 1945, the new idea was for power to be vested in the central state and its policy expression was nationalisation. In 1979, the new idea was for power to be vested in the free market and its policy expression was privatisation. In 1997, the new idea was for power to be vested in reformed institutions and its policy expression was modernisation. Now the new idea is to vest power in the citizen and the community and to make its policy expression empowerment.

This is the new political territory. Neither the right nor the left has yet, in truth, fully come to terms with it. Whoever does so first will, I believe, win both ideologically and electorally. It really is time to make a reality of Nye Bevan's famous dictum that the purpose of getting power is to give it away.

Alan Milburn is MP for Darlington and honorary president of Progress. This is an extract from "Beyond Whitehall: a New Vision for a Progressive State", published on 18 September by Progress. Available free of charge from: http://www.progressonline.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

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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.