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Who owns our democracy?

From the success of the BNP to the expenses scandal, we are lurching from one moral crisis to anothe

While D-Day veterans remembered the sacrifices of those who fought fascism, two racists from the British National Party were elected to represent us in Europe. What an appalling way for that generation’s grandchildren to honour their memory. It has been a sickening time to be involved with British politics. Buoyed by success, Nick Griffin took to the airwaves, boasting of how he will free the white population from the “racism” it suffers at the hands of an arrogant liberal elite. Less than six months after the United States elected its first black president, Britain is witnessing the rise of a politics of racial grievance. Something is deeply wrong in our democracy.

Some will interpret the BNP gains as a signal for harsher rhetoric in months ahead. As always, the temptation will be to triangulate to the right. Yet this would be a mistake. People are rightly becoming wary of triangulation as an inauthentic way of addressing their concerns. As such, mainstream politicians must resist the urge to play the “immigration card”. It is the easy way out and offers no lasting solution. We must recognise that the success of the far right reflects anger at the failure of mainstream politics to address deeply felt grievances of cultural loss and injustice. In many Labour heartlands, people feel disenfranchised and abandoned. There is a profound sense of cultural loss and injustice in many Labour heartlands, and it is no coincidence that the BNP frequently describes itself as Old Labour. Its nationalist socialism represents the politics of class, soured by racial hatred and bitterness.

We must also recognise that the success of the far right reflects wider voter disillusionment with politics itself. For every person who voted BNP in the European elections, another 29 decided not to vote at all. Britain is in a dark mood. Over the past six months, we have lurched through a series of moral crises – starting with the furore over Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, followed by public outrage over the case of Baby P, widespread anger over bankers’ bonuses, and now outright indignation over the abuse of MPs’ expenses. In each case, politicians have been slow to respond to events. They have been able only to follow the public mood, rather than to shape it.

More than this, in each of these cases mechanical reform – changes to systems of governance and
accountability – has been necessary but not sufficient. Reforms to children’s services, new banking regulations, a new expenses system for MPs, even a new constitution: all are needed, but none is enough. These are moral, ethical, social problems, not just technical difficulties.

And yet, too often, our politics is unable to reflect this. The dangerous drop in voter turnout, the rise of fringe parties, the political gains of the zealots in the BNP: these facts reflect not just a perceived lack of difference between the main parties, but the failure of any party to make a moral and emotional connection with people.

In response to the latest crisis, Gordon Brown is leading the debate on constitutional reform, rightly identifying it as unfinished business. How we elect our rulers and how they run their affairs matter enormously to the health of a democracy. The debate we are now having illustrates both how important New Labour’s modernising mission was – and how damaging it is that it was never seen through. Similarly, David Cameron has offered his own contribution on behalf of the Conservatives, making an argument about pushing power down to people and communities, expressing sentiments that many progressives share.

The problem of British politics is not simply one of a lack of accountability, however: it is that it has become managerial and unambitious. Politics today has become obsessed with what works, losing sight of what matters. The language of targets, delivery and governance feels so far away from the things that matter in our everyday lives.

In such a technocratic politics, the only response to crisis can be mechanical reform, which is incapable of reflecting big questions back to society itself. Yet questions about how we look after children, how we treat the professionals who try to help us, or what kind of market economy we want, are questions for all of us.

For Labour in particular, we must return to a discussion about fundamental values and beliefs if we are to provide the moral leadership that an ambitious politics demands. A clear vision of the good society is a prerequisite of a more sophisticated and authentic relationship with the public. Only then will we equip ourselves to respond to both voter apathy and the insurgency of parties of the extreme right with more than the usual short-term fix.

This is obviously no easy task, but it is a discussion we must have. So here is a starter for debate: the good society is one not just where we are free and powerful as individuals, but where we recognise that each of us is part of something bigger. The job of Labour is to reflect that idea and give it practical expression. It is our task to build common ground out of our cultural differences.

The big challenges of our age – addressing climate change, regulating financial markets, eradicating poverty, caring for the elderly, improving life chances – are issues of the common good, not simply of personal power. In each of these cases the role of politics is not just to aggregate the choices of millions by counting up the votes, as on Britain’s Got Talent. Governments must set the rules of the game and ensure they are not broken, putting limits on markets, establishing entitlements to care, setting minimum income levels and maximum carbon emissions.

However, that is simply the beginning of the work needed to build the good society. In addition to ensuring clear rules from the state, politics must also connect with the energy of movements in civil society itself. For the centre left, the ambitious political project involves establishing the new progressive institutions for the 21st century that will bring people together.

Clement Attlee’s institutions sought to address social deficits. The state stepped in to provide a safety net and to establish a basic social minimum. We still need to pool risk and provide high-quality universal services. But the institutions of the 21st century must move beyond a deficit model. They must also connect people, on and offline, providing practical ways for people to make a contribution to society.

As a wave of reforms opens Westminster up to much greater scrutiny, we need to apply the same ideas in the private sector. In finance, we need not just more oversight from above, but greater transparency in society to hold companies to account from below.

On the high street, we should recognise that consumerism is empty only because we allow it to be – and arm people with the information they need to make ethical daily choices. At work, we need models of ownership that allow people to work with one another, not just for someone else. In public services, patients and parents need to be brought together to help and advise one another. We are in danger of becoming a society of strangers. There should be opportunities for younger people to contribute and to learn habits of citizenship through a national civic service. For the elderly, we need to learn from systems of mutual and community support pioneered elsewhere, in countries such as Japan.

The principle behind all these ideas is the same – progressive politics must be about finding new ways to bring people together to create a better society. New Labour’s mantra was to help people to help themselves. That can no longer be enough. Progressive politicians must be in the business of helping people to help each other.

People are crying out for a politics they can believe in. Whatever you think of the policies of Ukip or the Green Party, their authenticity and consistency of message are compelling. Mainstream politicians have to understand that. The three main parties have dominated British politics for more than a century, but none of them – least of all Labour – can be complacent. We cannot take our position for granted.

Instead, we must offer a compelling vision that brings people together to answer big questions and encourages each of us to see our own choices as part of something larger. There is no short-term fix to the events of recent weeks or the rise of the BNP. The only answer is the politics of the good society.

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham and the minister of state for higher education

David Lammy is Labour MP for Tottenham

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Tragedy!

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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.