Follow the Mexican way

The fast pace of politics is damaging. Our new government could learn from the Zapatistas.

After the frantic campaigning and deal-making, what next? The financial markets and 24-hour media are already calling for urgent action and instant solutions from the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government. The economic crisis demands such an approach, they argue. But are quick fixes really what we need? Would we not be better off with a complete change of pace in the way we do politics, geared towards the con­sidered, consensual, long-term reforms that our fractured economy and political system need? Politics should be slower. That may test the patience of news junkies, but it would bring real benefits to Britain.

The question is: will we, the voters, allow our politicians to shift down a gear? Promises of immediate solutions have become de rigueur. And rather than admit to the powerlessness of government to provide these, politicians stoke public expectations, implying that social ills, economic problems and even democracy itself can all be sorted out in double-quick time.

One accusation that can be thrown at Labour justly is that, over its 13 years in power, it became addicted to spinning the wheel of politics ever faster. The new government should learn the lessons from that period. Three decades ago, most ministers remained in their post for at least three years (of a four-year term). Now, the average ministerial tenure is just 16 months. The Department for Work and Pensions, for example, has had eight secretaries of state come and go since it was created in 2001. Compare this with the average tenure of a head teacher (six to seven years) or a local authority chief executive (four to five years).

The result of this ministerial merry-go-round has been a perpetual cycle of new faces. It is no longer unusual to find ministers being reshuffled just as they get to grips with their brief. The "lucky" ones make their mark through rapid initiatives or new legislation - but they are rarely around to see their ideas through (or take the blame if they go wrong). Even government departments come and go. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills lasted little more than 23 months.

With so little time to make an impression, Labour ministers found that they were under enormous pressure to initiate policies. Programmes were refashioned or jettisoned before they had been evaluated. The charity Action for Children calculated that Labour introduced more than 300 initiatives, strategies and acts of parliament affecting children and young people between 1997 and 2008. It described this approach to policymaking as "volatile, wasteful and reactive". The same might be said for other areas of policy; the UK parliament has passed six criminal justice acts since 1997, one for every Labour home secretary appointed in that period.

Regulation, regulation

The frenetic pace of ministerial activity also accounts for the rapid increase in parliamentary decision-making by secondary legislation, in the form of statutory instruments (regulations, rules, orders). About 3,500 statutory instruments are passed each year, totalling roughly 12,000 pages of legislation - more than double the volume passed by parliament 20 years ago. This has led to questions about whether parliament can fulfil its duty to scrutinise legislation, and whether governments can monitor if new laws are being implemented properly. A House of Lords committee inquiry last year expressed concern that so little time is spent reviewing whether regulations work, and provided copious evidence of incidents in which poor implementation had led to ineffective or even damaging outcomes.

The preoccupation with the fast and new plays havoc with front-line professionals' ability to do their job. The time needed to bed down any initiative is entirely at odds with political time frames. The electorate is invited to judge polit­icians' impact every four or five years; given their limited tenure, ministers judge their own contributions in even tighter time frames. Yet programmes such as Sure Start are only now beginning to yield results after 12 years. It will take 18 years for the Child Trust Fund (an IPPR idea), which the Conservatives have pledged to restrict tightly to the poorest families only, to come to fruition. Perhaps the fund will have positive benefits, but it seems we can't wait that long to find out.

The pace of politics is also born of a need to feed our 24-hour media, which, at times, appear to dictate the speed of decision-making. The media pressure on ministers to take action in the event of a tragedy is immense: witness the former home secretary Alan Johnson's decision to ban mephedrone 13 days after newspapers ran stories about the deaths of two teenagers. The last senior drugs adviser to resign, Polly Taylor, expressed frustration "that there is little more we can do to describe the importance of ensuring that advice is not subjected to a desire to please ministers or the mood of the day's press". The news media threaten to undermine good policymaking, leaving politicians little time to weigh up the merits of a decision.

Clearly it is futile to expect the tide of 24-hour media to turn back. Besides, there are occasions when a fast pace is desirable - how much better that politicians and Treasury officials did not take a weekend off in October 2008 instead of dealing with the banking crisis. Indeed, at times politics can feel painfully slow. As anyone who has worked on a government white paper knows, often a huge amount of displacement activity takes place before real decisions are reached in the final stages.

Yet the inability to think beyond the next electoral hurdle encourages politicians to take a limited view. As the playwright David Hare put it, they are in open competition to think small. In his autobiography, the ex-MP Chris Mullin quotes a former cabinet secretary's advice to new ministers: "Remember, you are not going to be there for long, so don't try to put the world to rights - have two or three modest aims."

If the new government is serious about making a coalition workable, however, this will require a different set of skills. Designing Britain's economic future, establishing our place in the new world order and responding to the threat of climate change hardly lend themselves to quick fixes. Slow, patient, collaborative efforts will be necessary.

So we urge David Cameron, as the new Prime Minister, to promise less legislative and ministerial change and to focus on a long-term commitment to seeing ideas through. Rather than ratcheting up expectations about what might be achieved in its first 100 days, or rushing through an emergency Budget, the new government should spend its initial phase listening and debating with the public about the changes we need to make to our economy. Cameron should plan to keep his ministerial team for a full term and sack members only if they are manifestly incompetent. The House of Commons should agree a limit to the quantity of legislation it can scrutinise effectively in one parliamentary term. The major long-term issues facing Britain that require consensus, such as climate change, social care, pensions reform and national security, should be considered
by expert cross-party working groups, charged with coming up with consensual decisions that will last through the next 20 years, and not just the next spin of the political cycle. Such plans would bring about a marked change in our style of politics, one that would be for the better.

Hello, Mexico

It could be done. Countries with more sustainable economies and better-balanced societies already do things more slowly, often through a more devolved style of politics. In his recent book The Value of Nothing: How to Reshape Market Society and Redefine Democracy, Raj Patel documents how the Mexican Zapatistas are practising slow politics, using village-wide assemblies and rotating governing councils to draw all community members into decisions about local governance.

As Patel notes, genuine democracy takes time. And while few would relish the endless meetings that dominate local party politics, the recent surge of interest in community activism - highlighted by the impact of groups such as the Citizen Organising Foundation - could be a sign of slow politics in action.

Britain may not be ready to leap from central­ised policymaking to Zapatista-style politics, but, on our way to a more democratic system, politicians would do well to consider why we have allowed politics to become so frenzied. On election night in November 2008, Barack Obama outlined the challenges facing the United States and cautioned: "The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America - I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there."

After the heavy demands of an election campaign and coalition-building, Cameron should take inspiration from these words, and demand a slower way forward.

Lisa Harker and Carey Oppenheim are co-directors of IPPR

This article first appeared in the 24 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Greece now, Britain next

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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.”

***

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.”

***

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.