Vlad the Great

Putin has dismantled the fragile democracy of the 1990s, but has never been more popular. The New St

Russia is creeping towards dictatorship. The imminent parliamentary elections will be another step towards the re-establishment of a one-party system in Russia. No one doubts that the Kremlin-backed United Russia will dominate the next Duma - its propaganda dominates the media. To make sure, however, the Electoral Commission has raised the threshold for winning seats from 5 to 7 per cent of the vote and barred many of the weak and divided opposition parties from participating in the poll, using complicated registration laws. Opposition meetings are regularly broken up by the police.

Vladimir Putin may use United Russia's victory to break the constitution by standing for a third term in the presidential elections in March 2008. He has spoken ominously of his "moral right" to remain in power. Rallies "For Putin and For Russia" have been organised in a number of towns to encourage him to stand. A more likely scenario, perhaps, is that Putin will simply move from the post of president to that of prime minister, and that a corresponding shift of power will take place; or that he will get one of his cronies elected president (the newly appointed prime minister, Viktor Zubkov, is the obvious candidate) and replace him when he steps down for reasons of "ill-health". Either way, it doesn't really matter what the outcome of this intrigue is: Putinism is here to stay.

What is Putinism? First, it is a reassertion of the state, a counter-revolution against democracy, which in the eyes of the president's supporters brought Russia to the verge of ruin during the 1990s. The men behind this counter-revolution are the siloviki (from the Russian word for power) - men like Putin from the old KGB (reformed as the FSB), or the armed forces and the "power ministries", which together formed an inner cabinet in Boris Yeltsin's government and brought in Putin as his replacement in 2000.

The siloviki have taken over government. Their clients rule the regions, cities and towns and control the police and courts. They have steadily increased the staff and powers of the FSB, which today has 40 per cent more officers per citizen than the Soviet-era KGB. They have carried out a systematic assault on freedom of speech and information, intimidating independent newspapers and turning a blind eye to the contract killing of dozens of journalists, not to mention many more suspicious "accidents" over the past seven years.

The emerging political system is not yet a dictatorship, but nor is it democracy in anything but formal terms. Opposition parties can exist - but only within certain bounds. Elections are held - but their results are a foregone conclusion and the power-holders chosen in Kremlin corridors long before the polls open. There is no real political debate in the public media, and no broader culture of democracy to foster diversity of opinion. In many ways the problem is not the growing power of the Putin state (it could be argued that it is not as strong as it appears), but the chronic weakness of civil society. Sixteen years after the collapse of the Soviet regime, there are still no real social organisations, no mass-based political parties (except perhaps the Communists), no trade unions, no consumer or environmental groups, no professional bodies, and only a very small number of human rights associations, such as Memorial, to counteract the power of the state.

No need to pay

The second element of Putinism is the intimate connection between politics and business. Senior state officials control and own the public media, sit on the boards of state-owned corporations and enrich themselves from it, have lucrative connections with the oligarchs, and own large shares of the country's banks as well as its oil, gas and mining companies. At a lower level, in many Russian towns, politics and business are closely intertwined with the police and organised crime. Much of this goes well beyond corruption in the conventional meaning of the term (businessmen offering bribes to officials). In Putin's Russia the politician is usually a businessman, too, and perhaps an FSB official as well, so he doesn't need to pay a bribe. Political connections are the fastest way to become rich. The most successful oligarchs are shadowy figures in the presidential entourage. And all the country's senior politicians are multimillionaires, their money safely stashed abroad for them by Kremlin-favoured businessmen.

Thanks to the high price of oil and gas, Putin has overseen a strong upturn in the economy, which accounts for much of his popularity. The core of his constituency is the fast-growing middle class - the eight million Russians in 2000 and some 40 million today who are doing well enough to own homes and cars and go abroad on holiday. But Putin is also popular among a broader section of the population that has been lifted out of poverty by the recovery of recent years. The hyperinflation and economic instability of the 1990s are a fading memory. The rouble is strong; reserves are huge; public sector salaries are paid on time and, like pensions, have increased under Putin; and the government is at last starting to invest in the country's creaking infrastructure, hospitals and schools.

Yet there are serious economic vulnerabilities, not least Russia's heavy dependence on the export of its natural resources and the weakness of its manufacturing, services and hi-tech industries. The most serious concern is an imminent demographic crisis, largely brought about by high death rates (in particular among men, the main vodka drinkers) and westward emigration from Russia by large sections of the young and talented. Since 1991, the population has fallen by ten million to 140 million. A UN report estimates that it could fall below 100 million by 2050. Already there are shortages of students at universities and of staff in the workplace in many areas.

Meanwhile the Muslim population, with its historically high birth rates, continues to grow, in part as immigrants from central Asia fill the gaps in the labour market. There are 25 million Muslims in Russia today (demographers predict that they will be the majority within 50 years). Like the Jews in previous times, Russia's Muslims have become the focus of a rising wave of xenophobic Russian nationalism that is only partly satisfied by Putin's increasingly nationalist rhetoric. If it weren't for him, millions of Russians would vote for an ultra-nationalist - for instance, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, whose Liberal Democratic Party is expected to come second, or perhaps third behind the Communists, with roughly 10 per cent of the vote.

Humiliation

Nationalism is the third main element of Putinism, and perhaps the key to its success. Putin's nationalism is more complex than the reassertion of Russia's influence in the "near abroad" of former Soviet satellites (notably against the pro-western governments of Georgia and Ukraine, see Thomas de Waal, page 38) or the flexing of Russia's oil-pumped muscles on the international scene. At its heart is a long historical tradition of imperial rule and resentment of the west that has shaped the national consciousness.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was felt as a humiliation by most Russians. In a matter of a few months they lost everything - an empire, an ideology, an economic system, superpower status, national pride. They lost a national identity connected to the official myths of Soviet history: the liberating power of October 1917, victory in the Great Patriotic War, Soviet achievements in culture, science and technology. Within months of the Soviet collapse, the Russians had fallen into poverty and hunger and become dependent on relief from the west, which lectured them about democracy and human rights. Everything that happened in the 1990s - the hyperinflation, the loss of people's savings and security, the rampant corruption and criminality, the robber-oligarchs and the drunken president - was a source of national shame.

From the start, Putin understood the importance of historical rhetoric for his nationalist politics, particularly if it played to popular nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Polls in the year he came to power showed that three-quarters of the Russian population regretted the break-up of the USSR and wanted Russia to expand in size, incorporating "Russian" territories such as the Crimea and the Don Basin, which had been lost to Ukraine. Putin quickly built up his own historical mythology, combining Soviet myths (stripped of their Communist phraseology) with statist elements from the Russian empire before 1917. In this way his regime was connected to and sanctioned by a long historical continuum, a Russian tradition of strong state power, going back to the founder of the empire, Peter the Great, and Putin's native city, St Petersburg.

Integral to this is the idea, fostered by Putin, that Russia's traditions of authoritarian rule are morally the equal of democratic western traditions. Indeed, his supporters often say that Russians value a strong state, economic growth and security more than the liberal concepts of human rights or democracy, which have no roots in Russian history.

The rehabilitation of Stalin is the most disturbing element of Putin's historical rhetoric - and the most powerful, for it taps into a deep Russian yearning for a "strong leader". According to a survey in 2005, 42 per cent of the Russian people, and 60 per cent of those over 60 years of age, wanted the return of a "leader like Stalin". At a conference last June, Putin called on schoolteachers to portray the Stalin period in a more positive light. It was Stalin who made Russia great and his "mistakes" were no worse than the crimes of western states, he said. Textbooks dwelling on the Great Terror and the Gulag have been censored, historians attacked as anti-patriotic for highlighting Stalin's crimes.

All this comes as a huge relief to most Russians. Brought up on the Soviet myths, they felt ashamed, uncomfortable and resentful when, for a short time in the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were suddenly confronted by these awkward truths about their past. Now they needn't feel ashamed. With Putin's rewriting of Soviet history, they can feel good about their nation and themselves (as if, by way of a comparison, the postwar Germans had been told that the Holocaust had never taken place). Thanks to Putin, the Russians can move on and live their lives without asking awkward questions of themselves. It is how they lived in the Soviet Union.

Interviewing hundreds of survivors of Stalin's Terror for my book The Whisperers, I encountered many legacies of the Stalin period that affect the way Russians think and act today. One of the most striking is a strong political conformity, a silent acceptance and lack of questioning of authority, which was born of fear in the Stalin period but then passed down the generations to become part of what one might call the post-Soviet personality. No doubt this conformism will play a part in the elections, and in the resolution of the power question in the months to come. If Putin chose to sweep away the constitution and declare himself a dictator, I doubt many Russians would protest.

Orlando Figes's The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia is published by Allen Lane (£25).

Russia’s election by numbers

number of seats in the Duma: 450
number of parties eligible to stand: 11
number of parties likely to win seats: 4
number of registered voters: 108m
total who voted in the last elections in 2003 (56 per cent of those registered): 60.7m
proportion of voters who feel they have little or no influence over what happens: 94%

Research by Craig Burnett

This article first appeared in the 03 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s fragile future

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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.

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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.