Show Hide image

2010 — the year in review

From another botched Labour coup to the election of a coalition government, this political year has been full of interest.

It was the year that defied conventional wisdom. From the beginning of the long election campaign a Conservative victory seemed there for the taking, with most commentators and pollsters still predicting a Tory majority even as the country went to the polls. The same figures were certain that David Miliband would triumph in Labour's first leadership election since 1994. But in both cases the voters decided otherwise. As the establishment reacted with dismay to the first hung parliament since 1974 and to Ed Miliband's election as Labour leader, one was reminded of Bertolt Brecht's gibe about the need to elect a new people.

The year began with another outburst of existential angst over Gordon Brown's leadership. The third and final coup attempt came in January, when Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon moved to rid Labour of the most unpopular prime minister since polling began. But fear of a prolonged civil war, the absence of a Heseltine-type challenger, and Hoon and Hewitt's lack of credibility made Labour pull back from regicide. Peter Mandelson, who acted as the then PM's life-support machine, has since estimated that Brown's continued leadership cost Labour 20-30 seats at the general election and, come June, the party looked admiringly on the ruthless efficiency with which Australia's Labor replaced Kevin Rudd with Julia Gillard.

Thanks to a surprisingly inept start to their campaign, the Tories failed to capitalise on Labour's woes. The poster of an airbrushed David Cameron, bearing the legend "I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS", became the most parodied image of the election, ridiculed in scores of spoofs. The poster, like the revelation that Cameron's car followed him with his briefcase as he cycled in to work at Westminster, was a gift to those eager to portray him as vain and narcissistic.

Meanwhile, following polling evidence that George Osborne's "age of austerity" was scaring swing voters away, Cameron softened the party's line on the deficit and suggested that in-year cuts would not be "particularly extensive". His rhetorical U-turn muddled the Conservatives' economic message and suggested that they shared doubts over early spending cuts. Worse was to come as Cameron appeared unsure of his party's tax policy for married couples ("I messed up," he later conceded) and the former deputy party chairman Michael Ashcroft's non-domicile tax status was finally exposed. By the end of February, the Tories were just 2 points ahead of Brown's party, despite having led Labour by 26 points in May 2008.

Cameron's biggest strategic error was to agree to the televised leaders' debates, which transformed Nick Clegg from the little-known leader of the Liberal Democrats into the head of a revolt against the Labour-Tory duopoly. Having shared top billing with the revered Vince Cable at the start of the campaign, Clegg finally emerged as a national figure in his own right and Cable's photo was quietly dropped from the party's home page. It was during that strangely serene weekend following the first debate, when the Icelandic volcano grounded all UK flights, that the Liberal Democrats topped the opinion polls for the first time in their history. Time itself seemed out of joint.

Campaign Charlies

The Lib Dem surge would not last but it forced the Tories to fight a war on two fronts. Moreover, the debates institutionalised three-party politics, making hung parliaments more likely in the future. But "Cleggmania" also cost the Lib Dems, as activists hubristically campaigned in unwinnable seats, neglecting key marginals. Ultimately the party won just 57 seats, five fewer than in 2005.

Meanwhile, conflict was brewing between Cameron's chief of strategy, Steve Hilton, and his director of communications, Andy Coulson. Hilton, heavily influenced by a stint in California, was determined to run a hopeful, Obama-style campaign with the "big society" at its heart. By contrast, Coulson, a former tabloid editor, favoured a fierce and aggressive campaign that relentlessly targeted Brown's record. The result was increasingly incoherent. The "big society" failed to engage Cameron's own party, let alone the public. One Tory backbencher memorably described it as "complete crap", while others referred to it more succinctly as "BS". Oscar Wilde once declared that the problem with socialism "is that it takes up too many spare evenings". Voters working ever longer hours were unimpressed by the suggestion that they should set up their own schools and run local services.

If the Tories' campaign was incoherent, then Labour's was frequently risible. The appearance of an Elvis impersonator at one event and the much-spoofed poster depicting Cameron as the TV detective Gene Hunt are only the most memorable examples. The nadir came on a visit to Lancashire when Brown was overheard describing a Rochdale pensioner, Gillian Duffy, as a "bigoted woman". But despite the media furore over "Bigotgate", the incident had no discernible impact on support for Labour. Polls showed that freshly unpredictable voters even sympathised with the PM.

It was only two days before the election that the Labour leader finally found his voice, in a remarkable speech to Citizens UK. As Brown thundered with the passion of an Old Testament prophet, an excited Mandelson said: "That's what I've been telling him to do all along!" In the event, even though Labour won just 29 per cent of the vote - its second-worst vote share since 1918 - the overall result was not the 1983-style wipeout that some had feared. The party ended up with 258 seats, more than it won in 1983 and 1987, and significantly more than the Tories won in 1997, 2001 and 2005.

“David Cameron will be Prime Minister by teatime Friday," blogged the Daily Telegraph's Benedict Brogan confidently, several days before the election. In the event, the election delivered a hung parliament for the first time in a generation and the country entered a power vacuum for five days as the Liberal Democrats played the two main parties off against each other. For several days, the prospect of a "rainbow alliance" between Labour, the Lib Dems and minority parties was touted as a serious possibility, though the former Labour home secretary David Blunkett summed up the doubts of many when he warned against a "coalition of the defeated".

Cameron's "big, open and comprehensive offer" to the Lib Dems was a game-changer, though intense secrecy continued to surround the talks. Brown's surprise resignation on 10 May prompted many newspapers to accuse him of staging a "coup", a last-ditch attempt to keep Labour in power. They were proved wrong. At 8.45pm the very next day, Cameron announced that he and Clegg would together form a government.

The formation of a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took most by surprise, but the signs had been there all along. Since his election as Lib Dem leader, Clegg had moved the party steadily rightwards and promoted those from the free-market, Orange Book faction. It was he, not Cameron, who first spoke in 2009 of the need for "savage cuts". Moreover, the onus was on the Lib Dems, as the party of electoral reform, to prove that coalition government could work. We now know that they had little intention of sticking to their pledge to delay spending cuts until 2011. Even in their negotiations with Labour, as papers leaked to the New Statesman revealed, the Lib Dems were calling for "further and faster action on the deficit", including "some in-year cuts".

While many column inches have been devoted to finding the "cracks in the coalition", it has become increasingly obvious that this is no marriage of convenience. The Tories may have run election broadcasts against the "Hung Parliament Party" but Cameron seems happier sharing power than he would be with an all-Conservative government. The coalition allowed him to marginalise the right of his party and affirm his liberal conservatism.

The benefits for the Lib Dems are harder to discern. The loss of support for them has been startling, some polls putting approval for the party as low as 9 per cent, and one in five Lib Dem voters switching to Labour. Never again will the electorate fall for Clegg's holier-than-thou act. The party that warned of a Tory VAT "bombshell" during the election ended up joining the assault. The party that pledged, at the very least, to vote against higher tuition fees, has voted to triple them. Attracting the anger of student protesters is nothing new for the Tories, but for the Lib Dems - hitherto the party of protest, supporting free education and civil liberties and opposing the war in Iraq - it is a new and disconcerting experience.

Brothers grim

Away from the coalition, attention turned to Labour's leadership contest, where David Mili­band's coronation appeared a formality. With the full force of the New Labour machine behind him, he led from the front. He had more endorsements from the party establishment and larger donations, although his brother, Ed Miliband, won the support of the "big three" trade unions: Unite, Unison and the GMB.

In the event, it proved to be the tightest Labour election since Denis Healey defeated Tony Benn for the deputy leadership in 1981. Only in the 24 hours before the result did Ed Miliband - a one-time 33-1 outsider - become the bookies' favourite. Peter Hain, a leading ally of the younger Miliband, later reflected: "It came from nowhere. He didn't have any infrastructure or resources in place at the start."

As the brothers entered the specially convened leadership conference on a late September afternoon in Manchester, David smiled winningly and waved to the crowd as Ed sat tensely, biting his lip. It meant nothing: the elder Miliband gained the most votes in every round except the last, and eventually lost to his brother by just 1.3 per cent.

Speculation about David's next move dominated the Labour conference proper, as he delivered one of his finest speeches to date. But an unguarded aside on the Iraq war to Harriet Harman ("You voted for it. Why are you clapping?") during his brother's victory speech showed why he could no longer remain in front-line politics. Tensions between the rival camps remain unresolved, notably over Ed's claim to have opposed the war. As for the brothers, one Labour peer tells us that they are no longer on speaking terms.

One family drama soon replaced another as attention turned to Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, husband and wife. Although the couple were considered front-runners for the shadow chancellorship, the new leader appointed Alan Johnson. Given the uneasy relationship between Balls and Miliband, perhaps the decision was not surprising. "It's just like being back at the Treasury," Miliband had quipped at the NS Labour leadership hustings in June, after a verbose response from Balls. "Tell us the answer then, Ed, like you always do," Balls shot back.

It's often forgotten that Miliband has an astute grasp of economics, having taught the subject at Harvard during his sabbatical in 2003-2004. Appointing Johnson signalled that, unlike Tony Blair, he was unwilling to subcontract economic policy to his shadow chancellor. Yet Johnson has been no puppet, using Miliband's paternity leave to reaffirm his opposition to a graduate tax (before backtracking in December) and a permanent 50p top rate of income tax.

Labour has struggled to articulate a convincing alternative to the coalition's cuts as George Osborne, hitherto regarded as a liability, has emerged as a dominant figure. As recently as March, his unpopularity was such that Cameron insisted there was no pact between the pair and he could sack Osborne if he wanted to. The then shadow chancellor was left out of the "famous five" election squad - Cameron, Kenneth Clarke, Michael Gove, William Hague and Jeremy Hunt - after reportedly receiving low ratings in confidential Conservative polls.

Worse than Thatcher

Since the election, however, the Chancellor has frequently led from the front as the emperor-like Cameron has remained above the fray. Osborne's emergency Budget and Spending Review defined this year, and their effects will define the next. The cuts will reduce spending from 47.3 per cent of GDP in 2010-2011 to 39.8 per cent in 2015-2016 - equivalent to reductions made by Margaret Thatcher between 1979 and 1990. Osborne is determined to use his economic muscle to construct a Tory majority between now and the next general election. The recently announced cap on benefits was not just a populist measure but an act of supreme electoral engineering. The Tories believe that the flight of poor, mainly Labour-voting families from inner London will allow previously unwinnable seats to fall their way.

Conventional wisdom suggests the coalition should prepare for extreme unpopularity as Osborne's £81bn cuts kick in. The Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne, has privately predicted that support for his party will fall to 5 per cent and support for the Tories to 25 per cent. International experience suggests that austerity does not always result in electoral punishment, however. The three governments that executed the largest expenditure-based deficit reductions in modern times - Ireland in 1987, Canada in 1994 and Sweden in 1995 - were all re-elected. In addition, the next election will be fought under redrawn constituency boundaries that will strip Labour of about 25 seats.

Should the economy have returned to full health by 2015, Osborne will be in a position to hand out pre-poll sweeteners and to claim, as John Major once did: "It hurt but it worked." After a year in which the script was repeatedly torn up, there is every possibility that the same thing will happen again.

Samira Shackle and George Eaton write for the New Statesman blog The Staggers.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

Fox via YouTube
Show Hide image

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.”

***

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.