What's humanitarian about this aid?

The US has imposed on Russia an aid package that will leave the country poorer but American farmers

Here we are at the end of 1998. More than ten years has passed since Russia began experimenting with economic and political reform. During those ten years, we have had much experience of this reform and can now state with some certainty that there are at least three things Russia does not need. First, more loans to add to those that already cannot be paid back. Second, more financial resources placed in the hands of corrupt bureaucrats. Third, more economic measures that will harm any of the already fragile Russian domestic manufacturing industries.

What is the west doing to help Russia at the end of 1998? You don't need three guesses to work out that it is engaging in the one form of "aid" activity guaranteed to achieve all three of these negative goals: selling large quantities of cheap food to Russia. This is what is generally called "humanitarian aid". It is a farce.

Which is not to say that there aren't hungry people in Russia, or that hungry people shouldn't be helped. Even in Moscow, the richest city in the country, the metro stations are now tightly encircled by old ladies holding up single packs of cigarettes and bits of dried fish, the sale of which will finance the potato they will eat for supper. Even in Moscow everyone has a story: a cousin in Siberia, perhaps a PhD in physics, who hasn't received his salary for a year, or a friend whose child reports that schoolmates pass out in class through lack of food. The newspapers are full of such stories, too, and, although Russians generally seem to find ways to survive without starving, one doesn't have to look hard to see poverty that is far worse than in recent years.

There are good ways to help people and bad ways. There are also terrible ways, and the west, most notably the United States, appears to have chosen the most terrible way of all. At least the European Union has the decency to give its $500 million worth of surplus subsidised food to Russia for free. The United States, on the other hand, has graciously offered to lend the Russian government money to buy its $600 million worth of surplus subsidised food - thereby adding to the Russian government's vast and unrepayable debts.

More to the point, everything is being done to ensure that the money will not go directly to the people who need it. If the words "humanitarian aid" conjure up a heart-warming image of a little man in a shiny lorry giving out hot cross buns to beggars, forget it. According to the current plan, the aid will be distributed by private companies, which in Russia means fat, sluggish, semi-private companies stuffed with former Agriculture Ministry bureaucrats. Inevitably these companies have close links to the politicians who selected them to carry out said aid distribution.

At least one of these companies, Roskhleboprodukt, has done this sort of thing before: it distributed grain three times in 1991 and 1992. That is, it took the grain, sold the grain, accepted money for the grain and somehow appeared not to notice when large quantities of grain and money disappeared in the process. The president of Roskhleboprodukt has admitted that the last time around, food distribution wasn't entirely above board although, naturally, he denied that his company was involved.

Yet it isn't as if the aid is intended to help the Russian domestic food industry either. When a few semi-private companies sell free food below cost, what happens to Russian food producers in the meantime? Well, first they have trouble competing; then they go out of business. Cheap chicken legs from America mean that producers of Russian pork might as well go home. Ditto cheap wheat, rye, rice, beef, whatever.

Although there are conflicting reports about how good the Russian grain harvest was this past year, the view of the Russian grain market in the future is fairly uniform: the flood of foreign food will create a surplus, and that surplus can only, in the end, hurt domestic producers.

Unless, of course, those domestic producers simply start selling their products abroad, which they almost certainly will. Already Russia has exported 1.5 million tonnes of wheat this year, according to the Institute for Agrarian Market Research here. Hundreds of thousands more tonnes go abroad every month, and nobody has any intention of stopping them. True, Russia has agreed not to re-export American aid, but even if it keeps to this promise, which seems unlikely, Gennady Kulik, the deputy prime minister, whose pet project this is, insisted last week that "no, we are not going to stop exporting". And that is that.

Yes, Kulik is a cynic. But he does deserve some credit: he is not as cynical as the American secretary of agriculture who has openly described the aid deal as "good news for America's farmers and ranchers". He is right: if anyone other than the employees of Roskhleboprodukt stands to gain from this exercise, it is they.

And if anyone loses, it will be the Russians, and not only the hungry Russians. When, once again, a western effort to "help" Russia collapses into chaos and corruption, the appetite for doing something - anything - on Russia's behalf will sink further.

Yet it is not as if there aren't intelligent ways to spend aid money here: with $100 carefully invested, one could probably do a lot more than with $100 million handed over to Roskhleboprodukt. There are provincial reformers who need support, local charities to advise, schools to help with western books and funding. There is a whole generation to educate, a generation that is genuinely interested in, and open to, western ideas and culture. If that sounds like too big a job, other problems could be addressed. Russia is facing shortages of insulin, for example, without which diabetics die; and the newspapers are full of stories about tuberculosis, especially in prisons but among the poor as well.

A few foundations and the odd charity have worked out that there are ways to spend money intelligently. But, to date, almost no one in the official "help Russia" business has been interested in spending money intelligently. They have been interested in other things: shoring up Boris Yeltsin, or making the Russian money markets safe for American banks, or helping American and European farmers. No wonder our aid efforts have failed in the past, and no wonder they will fail again.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A prejudice as American as apple pie

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

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.