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The lost herd

When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in 2007, he made great play of appointing figures from outs

On 11 May 2007, in a speech at the Imagination Gallery in the West End of London during which he announced his candidacy for the leadership of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown promised a "new politics" of openness, reform and change. He pledged to govern "in a different way", with a fresh style and new personnel. "I will reach out to put national interest before sectional interest," he said, "and I will form a government of all the talents, bringing people together to listen, to learn and solve problems, building on a broad sense of national purpose."

Within 48 hours of entering Downing Street as Prime Minister, on 27 June, Brown announced that the former United Nations deputy secretary general Mark Malloch Brown, the former first sea lord Admiral Sir Alan West, the former secretary general of the Confederation of British Industry Sir Digby Jones and Ara Darzi, one of the country's leading surgeons, would be ennobled and made ministers in government. Over the past two years, other non-politicians have joined Brown's ministerial ranks, including his former chief of staff and ex-head of the television regulator Ofcom, Stephen Carter, and the former City fund manager and multimillionaire Paul Myners.

Today, the Prime Minister's big tent is slowly being folded away, its frame dismantled, as one after another of the chief recruits to his "government of all the talents", called "goats" by Whitehall insiders, slips the ministerial tethers to graze in pastures new. Of the original quartet, only Lord West remains in office.

Should we be surprised? The Prime Minister is by reputation both a party-political tribalist and a keen centraliser of power - his former permanent secretary Andrew Turnbull described him as "Stalinist" and his former cabinet colleague Charles Clarke called him a "control freak". He always seemed an unlikely goatherd. Here was an opportunity for him to show the country his pluralist intentions and bipartisan credentials.

Tony Blair had been a strong advocate of big-tent politics: think of the late Roy Jenkins's report on proportional representation and Chris Patten's commission on policing in Ulster. Brown went beyond Blair, who deployed the great and the good from across the political spectrum only to advise, review and report, by bringing political outsiders directly into government.

Goats, however, are notoriously stubborn creatures, unpredictable and difficult to control. Malloch Brown became Lord Malloch-Brown of St Leonard's Forest in the County of West Sussex and was appointed minister of state for Africa, Asia and the UN at the Foreign Office. Within a fortnight of taking office, he had announced, much to the annoyance of Washington, that Brown and George W Bush would not be "joined at the hip" in the manner of Bush and Blair, a remark that seemed to suggest the end of the "special relationship".

When Malloch Brown resigned this month for "personal and family reasons", he said he remained "completely loyal to the Prime Minister". Yet reports since have suggested that the former international diplomat could no longer tolerate working in chaotic Whitehall, and had told colleagues that he had been party to better "strategic thinking" in Latin America and south-east Asia than in Downing Street. In a farewell salvo on Wednesday, Lord Malloch-Brown became the first senior minister to admit that British troops need more helicopters in Afghanistan - contradicting the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary - and he conceded that Brown's future looked "bleak". So much for loyalty.

His resignation was followed on 14 July by that of the Iraqi-born Ara Darzi - who, as Lord Darzi of Denham, was appointed by Brown as under-secretary of state at the Department for Health. Known as Robo-Doc for his pioneering work in the advancement of minimal invasive surgery and his use of surgical robots, Darzi fuelled speculation about an early election in October 2007 by publishing an unexpected interim report on his plans for NHS reform. He also angered campaigners, and Labour backbenchers, in a speech to the Lords in January 2008, by abandoning Lab­our's historic commitment to eliminate mixed-sex wards from NHS hospitals.

Darzi said he was resigning to focus on his medical work and academic research, but one has to ask: is this the time for a health minister to quit, as the Department of Heath grapples with a swine flu epidemic? He leaves the government having failed to see through the "once-in-a-generation" reforms he announced the government would be making to the NHS. Perhaps his only memorable contribution to political life is the time he leapt across the red benches in the Lords to save the life of a fellow Labour peer, Lord Brennan, who had collapsed after a heart attack.

Arguably the most controversial resignation - and appointment - among the goats was that of Digby Jones. The corpulent, conservative recent head of the CBI took the title Digby, Lord Jones of Birmingham, and became minister for UK trade and investment in the (then) Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. He quit the government after just 18 months in the post following a series of disagreements with Brown over spending and taxation, rows with civil servants, and a stream of gaffes - including some embarrassing remarks at a forum of Middle Eastern entrepreneurs. "We don't care what colour you are," he said. "We don't care if we can't pronounce your names and we don't care where your money comes from. We just want you to invest in our country." Jones then said: "I'm a goat, not a professional politician."

Since leaving government, Jones has spent his time criticising both Brown and civil servants, telling a Commons select committee in January this year that the job of junior minister was "one of the most dehumanising and depersonalising experiences a human being can have".

So who is left? The sole remaining goat from the original herd is the former first sea lord, Admiral Sir Alan West, who became Lord West of Spithead and was appointed under-secretary of state for security and counterterrorism at the Home Office by the Prime Minister in June 2007. Home Office press officers have since described him as "gaffe-prone", a "liability" and a "nightmare to manage". In November 2007, he questioned the government's plans to hold terror suspects for up to 42 days without charge, stating in a live BBC radio interview that he was not "totally convinced" of the case for change - only to perform a U-turn less than two hours later, after a hurried meeting with Brown.

His explanation: "Being a simple sailor, not a politician, maybe I didn't choose my words well." (The PM's spokesman issued his own memorable clarification: "I think he thought it was necessary to make sure his position was properly understood. I'm not sure he has changed his mind. Lord West made his position quite clear. Lord West gave his views quite clearly in his second statement.")

West is known for his bravery. In 1982, as the 34-year-old officer in command of the frigate HMS Ardent when it was sunk by Argentinian bombers during the Falklands conflict, he was the last to leave the sinking ship. His action earned him the Distinguished Service Cross. Nearly three decades on, the "simple sailor" remains the last man standing on the sinking ship of government. One source close to West says he has no plans to quit and that he is committed to his Home Office role - but adds "for the foreseeable future".

Brown's aides are curiously unwilling to lay any blows on the fleeing goats. One Downing Street aide told me each of them had "enrichgovernment" and that their contributions to public life "remain a genuinely positive story". What about Digby Jones? "Digby is Digby," I was told. "We knew he would be outspoken from the moment he was appointed."

But is this a genuinely positive story? One could argue that it was foolhardy to tread down this path in the first place. Political outsiders are, almost by definition, either ignorant of political rules, regulations, conventions and customs, or unwilling to conform to them. This was an accident waiting to happen.

Then there is the issue of ideology. As James Purnell (who resigned from the cabinet in June) has been busy pointing out, ideas matter, and constructing big tents in politics, welcoming as they may be, risks losing sight of this. New Labour was built on the assumption that modern politics is no longer ideological, substantive or divisive, that what matters is what works, and that there are bureaucratic, technical and pragmatic fixes to every political problem. This has proved to be a fiction. Bringing in outsiders to add expertise and experience to government is not new: Clement Attlee succeeded with the trade union leader Ernest Bevin, and Margaret Thatcher with the businessman David Young. Brown's mistake was to pretend that he could defy the laws of politics by appointing people who neither owed him party loyalty nor necessarily shared his political values. Jones, for example, is said to have discussed becoming a Con­servative MP once with the then Tory leader, Michael Howard. As head of the CBI, he had long opposed a range of Labour economic and social policies, chief among them the minimum wage. Why make him a Labour minister?

But, above all else, this is a story of a government of all the talents that could not keep those talents for long. On the one hand, we had a prime minister who thought he wanted independent goats in his administration but really needed loyal sheep; on the other hand, we had non-politicians who thought they could adapt to politics simply by virtue of their experience or expertise.

The shortsightedness identified by Lord Malloch-Brown and the bureaucracy singled out by Lord Jones are now hallmarks of modern British governance. The end result is a group of outsiders who have returned to the outside world, disillusioned, disappointed and depressed. That Lord Myners has announced he is leaving the Treasury to become a student of theology speaks volumes about life as a minister today. Whether we like it or not, politics will continue to be dominated by professionals.

Mehdi Hasan is senior editor (politics) of the New Statesman

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2009 issue of the New Statesman, On tour with the far right

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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 “Apple” 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.