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End of the party

Unlike the Profumo affair, which had no lasting significance, the scandal over MPs’ expenses is the

A government that had been in power for too long was showing, so critics said, signs of tiredness. There were mutterings about the prime minister. Then a terrible scandal broke. “It is a moral issue,” thundered the Times, arguing that 12 years of government by the same party had left the nation at a spiritually low ebb. Gordon Brown and MPs’ expenses in 2009? No. Harold Macmillan and the Profumo affair in 1963.

John Profumo was the Conservative secretary of state for war. In 1961, at a weekend party at Cliveden, Lord Astor’s country house in Buckinghamshire, he had begun a short affair with Christine Keeler, a high-class call girl. He ended it after just four weeks, having been warned by the cabinet secretary that she was simultaneously sharing her favours with a Captain Ivanov, the Soviet naval attaché to London.

The story broke in the spring of 1963. Summoned by the Tory whips late at night, Profumo, under sedation, prepared a personal statement for the House of Commons. Unwisely, but understandably, he tried to protect his family by denying impropriety.

But Profumo had reckoned without the new leader of the opposition, Harold Wilson, who had succeeded Hugh Gaitskell in February 1963. Gaitskell would almost certainly have kept out of it, partly because he was himself vulnerable to the moralists, being in the throes of an affair with the society hostess Ann Fleming. But Wilson, pharisaically denying any concern with private morality, insisted that national security was at stake, though it was unlikely Keeler’s pillow talk consisted of questions about the precise location of Nato missile sites in West Germany. Profumo, however, was found to have deceived the Commons, and duly resigned.

Macaulay famously said that there was no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality. Profumo’s resignation opened the floodgates of national self-righteousnessness. The result seemed farcical even at the time. Macmillan set up an inquiry under Lord Denning, another fully paid-up member of the Pharisee tendency, to look at the security implications. There were none, but this did not stop Denning from licking his lips at the moral failings of ministers and others.

Some of the evidence was, he insisted, so “disgusting” that he had had to send the “lady typists” out of the room while it was being delivered. According to the somewhat unreliable statements of various call girls, naked Conservative ministers were in the habit of holding orgies, serviced by a masked man wearing nothing but an apron. A minister had apparently been discovered with a prostitute under the bushes in Richmond Park. Worst of all, seven high court judges appeared to have been involved in orgies. “Seven,” Macmillan responded. “I can’t believe it. One or two – perhaps even three, but surely not seven.”

Paradoxically, the Profumo affair delayed rather than hastened Macmillan’s resignation. He had privately decided to leave in the summer of 1963, but now felt that he could not appear to be driven out by scandal. Had he retired as planned, his successor would probably have been the chancellor, Reginald Maudling, who would have proved a more formidable opponent for Wilson in the October 1964 general election than Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

Making the affair public served Wilson’s purpose by undermining the Tories. It had no other long-term significance. Indeed, it is not of the slightest importance to any but the prurient. The expenses scandal is quite different. It casts a shadow over the whole political system, revealing a widespread culture of abuse by politicians from all parties. The Profumo affair exposed private matters that ought to have remained private. The expenses scandal exposes matters that ought never to have been private in the first place. The culture it has revealed, which Nick Clegg described as one based on “unwritten conventions, unspoken rules and nods and winks”, symbolises a parliament that has become insulated from the public. Unlike Profumo, this scandal will have long-term consequences because it fuels the demand, already strong, for reforms to transform a top-down system into something more accountable and transparent.

Profumo himself behaved rather more honourably than the current bunch, resigning not only his office, but also his seat in the Commons. He played no further part in public affairs, devoting the rest of his life to good works at Toynbee Hall, for which he was to receive a CBE and personal recognition from the Queen. He refused other awards, including an honorary fellowship from his Oxford college, because he did not want to reignite old memories. If only one could expect the recalcitrants of today, such as Douglas Hogg and Elliot Morley, to behave as well. The unlikelihood of it is just one measure of the abyss that separates 1963 from today.

The Profumo affair was a minor indiscretion by an unimportant cabinet minister that somehow came to be transformed into a narrative of national moral decline. Voters then could express their resentment by switching to Labour or the Liberals. No such luxury is available today, as the expenses crisis affects the whole political class. No party is free from taint. That is what makes it the most serious constitutional crisis of modern times. To cure it, we need not a new Lord Denning, but the opening up of a political system that has remained sealed off from the people for far too long.

So, how should the public channel its anger constructively? Lord Tebbit has suggested opting out of the party system by abstaining, or voting for a minor grouping, though not the British National Party. But that is the very opposite of what is needed. Instead of opting out, the public should opt in. They should join the party that best represents their convictions and seek to reform it. A first step would be to press for a vote of no confidence in MPs who have abused the system, in effect deselecting them. Then voters should insist that they, rather than small and often unrepresentative cliques, choose their candidates, through primary elections.

Before the 2008 London mayoral election, David Cameron instituted an open primary in which all voters, and not just Conservative Party members, could decide between the various Conservative candidates. There is no reason why this innovation should not be copied for elections to the House of Commons. Then voters would be able to satisfy themselves of the integrity of candidates before endorsing them.

But reform of the parties will not be enough, for our political parties are dying on their feet as mass organisations. The reason for this was well summed up by Gordon Brown as long ago as 1992. “In the past,” he said, “people interested in change have joined the Labour Party, largely to elect agents of change. Today, they want to be agents of change themselves.” The expenses scandal has highlighted the need for far-reaching reform of the relationship between government and the people. Trust in politicians will not be regained for a long time, if ever. The people will now want to take political decisions for themselves, rather than leaving them to their MP.

One reason why Labour’s constitutional reforms have not rejuvenated our politics is that they have redistributed power not between government and the people, but between elites, between politicians in London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and between politicians and judges. The members of the officer class have been dividing up the spoils between themselves. The next stage of reform must be to redistribute downwards, not sideways. That will involve much more direct democracy to supplement, though not replace, our representative system.

So far the referendum has been used in Britain only for constitutional issues, and only when governments feel inclined to use it. However, the Local Government Act 2000 allowed, for the first time, 5 per cent of registered electors in any local authority area to secure a referendum on directly elected mayors. If mayors, why not other matters? Why should not voters be able to secure a referendum on the organisation of schools in their area, on the size of their local authority budget, or even the organisation of the National Health Service? The instruments of direct democracy need to be wrested from the political class so that the people themselves can trigger the use of these tools.

The green paper The Governance of Britain, issued when Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, declared that “in the past, individuals and communities have tended to be seen as passive recipients of services provided by the state. However, in recent years, people have demonstrated that they are willing to take a more active role.” It is time to put these brave words into effect.

Voters should use the crisis, not to withdraw from politics, but to open up the system. I have described in more detail how this might be done in my forthcoming book, The New British Constitution. The expenses scandal serves only to underline that today, in Britain, the age of pure representative democracy is over.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of politics and government at Oxford University. His book “The New British Constitution” will be published Hart on 8 June (£17.95 paperback)

Diary of Deceit

1936 The secretary of state for the colonies, Jimmy Thomas, leaks the Budget
1963 The war secretary, John Profumo, quits over an affair with a call girl
1973 Lords Lambton and Jellicoe resign after confessing to using prostitutes
1985 Al-Yamamah arms deal is sealed by bribing members of the Saudi royal family
1986 Splits in the Thatcher government over a rescue bid for the British helicopter manufacturer Westland lead to targeted leaks from inside cabinet
1993 John Major’s relaunch campaign, Back to Basics, is derailed by Tory sex scandals
1998 Peter Mandelson, trade and industry secretary, quits after press exposes undisclosed £373,000 house purchase loan
2001 Mandelson resigns again over allegations that he fast-tracked British citizenship for an Indian businessman in return for Dome bailout
2006 Labour found to have recommended peerages in return for money
January 2009 Allegations surface against four Labour peers concerning fee charges for influencing legislation
April 2009 Gordon Brown apologises after Damian McBride’s planned online smear campaign against Tory MPs is discovered
May 2009 Publication of MPs’ expense claims forces Speaker to quit

By Anisha Ahmed

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Big Brother

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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.”

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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.

***

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.