Bring it on

We can and will expose Cameron Conservatism to be as out of touch and unsuited for these times as La

"The election's a foregone conclusion . . . Labour can't win a fourth term . . . The centre left is in crisis . . . We need to reinvent ourselves . . . Let's debate how 'modern' Cameron's Conservatives are - and who should be Labour's next leader." These assertions - some from the Tories, some from their friends in the media, some from our own side - stem from different motives. But anyone who wants a genuinely progressive government to get us through this global recession must reject them all.

As we approach the most important general election for a generation, this is no time for introspection or defeatism. There's never been a moment when Labour's values and experience have been more relevant or necessary. The biggest global recession in our lifetimes has not only required unprecedented action, it has also shattered some of the assumptions the right have clung to for decades. Who would now dare claim that financial markets, left to their own devices, are efficient or inherently stabilising? Or that financial market regulation is always to be reduced wherever possible?

The global financial crisis of the past year has underlined the importance of our defining philosophy: while markets are powerful drivers of growth and innovation, there is a vital role for the state in making sure they work fairly and in the public interest. The supposedly modern and "progressive" Conservative Party has opposed every action we have taken to support the economy. As Alan Johnson said last weekend, it was the call of the century whether to intervene to stop recession turning to depression - and David Cameron and George Osborne got it wrong.

Where you are on the political spectrum is ultimately defined by two things - your view of what constitutes social justice, and your view of the role of the state in delivering fair outcomes. The stark contrast between the Tories' inaction and calls for spending cuts now, and the way Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling have led the world in dealing with the downturn and supporting families, is why I say Labour is clearer about the modern role for the state in delivering fair outcomes than ever.

I don't see our approach today as a wrenching change from the past. New Labour was never about a wholesale embrace of free-market individualism. We always knew that markets should be servants not our masters, that we had to tackle vested interests, that there is a role for government in delivering social justice. That was the essence of the new Clause Four. Look at the radical things we did in the early years: from the minimum wage and the windfall tax to the creation of a single statutory regulator for financial services. But we were also right to strike a careful balance by supporting the market economy and recognising the state can sometimes be part of the problem as well as part of the solution.

So, just as we rejected the heavy-handed anti-individual collectivism of early 1980s Bennite Labour, we were also right to support open markets and champion a tough competition policy as well as proper voice and choice for users of public services. We did not always strike this balance right. In public-service reform, we sometimes sounded as though private-sector solutions were always more efficient; and who can now doubt that, despite the tougher measures we brought in, financial regulation was not tough enough?

We need to continue to get this balance right as we prepare our manifesto - and be clear about the limits of but also the proper role for government. Of course, policy debates, external challenge and new ideas - in the pages of this magazine and from think tanks - are essential, especially after 12 years of government. But we don't need think tanks to work out that there is a false choice between heavy-handed statism which does not respect individual choices and a so-called progressive liberalism that sees the state as the enemy of individual freedom and is just conservatism with the label "progressive" erroneously shoved in front.

Yet while the clear differences between the parties on the economy are well understood, commentators are still claiming we're all the same on tax and spending. This poses a challenge. It's going to be tougher on spending in the coming years - all countries need to get borrowing and the debt ratio down steadily, as the Chancellor set out in the Budget.

But where we have to make tough choices, and where some things have to be cut back, we must do so in a fair and Labour way - because the financial excesses of a few should not be paid for by damaging cuts to front-line public services for the many. On tax, the Tories are also in a fundamentally different place. They oppose our National Insurance rise and higher top rate of tax, and want an inheritance tax cut for the wealthiest. So even before they've started reducing borrowing, the Tories need to find billions every year just to keep deficit reduction on track. This Tory position is not simply about tackling the deficit. It's about ideology, too. Which is why Osborne cannot hide his relish for the deep and immediate spending cuts the Tories propose.

The ideological divide between the two parties - on policy, values, the role of the state - is now wider than at any time since the Thatcherite 1980s. And when the policies and underlying philosophies of the parties are scrutinised - on spending, Europe and education - we can and will expose Cameron Conservatism to be as out of touch and unsuited for these times as Labour was in 1979.We face an election with a choice as stark and vital for Britain's future as 1945 or 1997.

We have to be more determined in setting out the choice and taking the fight to the Tories - not just on the economy, but on tax and spending, too.This is not the time to buy the Tory spin that the election's already lost and throw in the towel. We face the fight of our lives - and Britain faces a choice of huge importance. We can and must win this fight, and ensure that our country makes the progressive choice.

Ed Balls is Labour and Co-operative MP for Normanton and Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families

Ed Balls was formerly the shadow chancellor and MP for Morley and Outwood.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Citizen Ken

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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.