Now it gets really dirty

In the wake of Super Tuesday, Andrew Stephen predicts the gloves will now come off in the race for t

So we lost the 2008 US presidential election. The world, I mean. Whether it is to be President McCain or Obama or Clinton - or any of the couple of other Republicans just about still standing after Super Tuesday - US foreign policy, at the very least, will remain much the same.

True, Obama and Clinton are both committed to trying to end the war in Iraq, while McCain says that it could easily go on for, well, at least another 100 years.

But otherwise things will tick on much as before; no less an authority than the Washington Post, for example, scrupulously went through the respective foreign policies of Barack Obama and McCain’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney, and concluded there was very little difference between the two.

Had America’s voters wanted a significant change in US foreign policy, in fact, they would have voted for Republican Congressman Ron Paul - the likeable Libertarian who, at 72, is too old to care what people think and freely lambasts the US for ruining both the world and the country itself by its “imperialism” and insistence on having an “empire”. Needless to say, Paul scraped together just about four per cent of the vote in the Republican caucuses and primaries last Tuesday.

Should Iraq not flare up again between now and November - and, either way, that could help McCain and the man who may have earned the Republican vice-presidential candidature last Tuesday, Mike Huckabee - the last remaining battle is between a 60-year-old woman and a 46-year-old bi-racial man, fighting to be the Democratic nominee who will oppose a 72-year-old Republican for the White House.

I wrote last week how Karl Rove and his fellow warlocks and witches had brewed their pot in 2000 and ‘04 and come up with the “v-word” (values) as the Republicans’ highly successful mantra. This year, Obama’s very own Rove - David Axelrod, senior partner of AKP Message & Media, the Chicago company which is masterminding Obama’s campaign - has come up with a brand-new, albeit just as meaningless, word.

This time, it is the “c-word” - change - that has now become Obama’s mantra. Indeed, exit polls last Tuesday showed that Democratic voters now consider “change” to be the most important issue in the election this year. “Change is coming to America,” roared Obama in his victory speech in Chicago last Tuesday night. “This fall...we have to choose between change and more of the same. We have to choose between looking backwards and looking forwards.” Hillary Clinton, he went on, will not be able to say he voted for the war in Iraq in 2003. Er, no, she won’t: but then Obama wasn’t in the Senate to vote either way, was he?

I suspect the gloves will really now come off between Obama and Clinton until the Democratic nomination is settled - which, just conceivably, might not be until the Denver convention in August. Super Tuesday was so massive that it drained both candidates of funds, but last month alone Obama raised $37m; Goldman Sachs, which made $6bn profit from devalued mortgage security in the first nine months of last year, is Obama’s biggest corporate contributor. Exit polls, too, confirmed that Obama is the candidate of the yuppies: practically every voter earning less than $50,000 voted for Clinton rather than Obama, and those in the $150-200,000 range plumped for Obama.

The ageist and sexist cards, too, are working well so far for Obama. Exit polls showed that 51 per cent of voters between 18 and 44 voted for Obama, compared with 46.5 per cent for Clinton; by contrast, a majority of the rest of the electorate went for Clinton. Just 37 per cent of Democrats over 60 voted for Obama, in fact, compared with 53 per cent for Clinton.

Possibly more crucial, though, is that the Latino vote - currently the fastest growing bloc of the electorate, with 17 per cent in McCain’s state of Arizona and 23 per cent in California - went overwhelmingly for Clinton, by 74-25 in New York. All of which suggests that the Democrats are heading for a bruising and, quite possibly, vicious battle. Hillary Clinton has already challenged Obama to four more debates, which he will now find practically impossible to reject; the wind is currently behind Obama, but that could easily change in this era of YouTube when one wrong word can instantly smash a political career to smithereens.

McCain, for one, has a notorious hot temper that could boil over any time between now and election day on 4 November. He will have other troubles, too. “Maverick” is such a cliché to describe McCain that I’m almost embarrassed to do so, but it captures him perfectly because it explains his cross-party appeal as well as opposition within the Republicans.

He can sound frighteningly like Dr Strangelove yet, having himself been tortured by the Vietcong as a POW in Vietnam, is 100 per cent opposed to American torture of prisoners and wants to close Guantanamo - though we can surely rely on the military and CIA to dream up new, hitherto unthought-of forms of torture - but he also wants to step up the military onslaught on Iraq and “win” the quintessentially unwinnable war.

A President McCain would also keep George W Bush’s ludicrous tax cuts for the very rich, but is one of the few Republicans ready to act on climate change. Heaven knows how he would justify his fiscal promises should he be president in the looming domestic recession.

So far it has been self-promoting right-wing clowns like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who have openly opposed McCain - last Monday, Rushbaugh devoted an entire programme to anti-McCainism - but that disaffection is now likely to spread, albeit more surreptitiously, throughout the party’s Establishment. Coulter even says that if McCain is the candidate and Hillary her opponent, she would rather vote for Clinton.

That would be one more woman’s vote for Hillary, who - extrapolating from last Tuesday’s results - has the Democratic working-class, Latino and women’s votes sewn up. Obama will now be playing the youth and c-word cards for all they’re worth, though.

It took me aback on voting day when I realised that an 18-year-old I know who was voting for the first time was just one when Bill and Hillary Clinton entered the White House in 1992; if Hillary wins two terms in the White House, 40 per cent of Americans will have known only presidents called Bush or Clinton. Nature also helps Obama, too: he looks much younger but will will be 47 on election day, four years older than JFK was when he became president.

Just as McCain has benefited from a wildly supportive media - the Project for Excellence in Journalism says that he won twice as much favourable publicity as either Huckabee or Romney - so, too, Obama has received overwhelmingly positive coverage from a press that has yet to lay a finger on him - probably, I suspect, because most reporters fear they will be labelled racist if they query his qualifications or suitability for the White House. Instead, the media has torn into Bill Clinton; it’s gone down in political lore, possibly forever, that Bill Clinton began a poisonous injection of racism into the Democratic contest on behalf of his wife.

Yet ironically, if there is one good thing you can say about Clinton, it is that he is not a racist; he was actually brought up in rank poverty surrounded by African-Americans, while Obama spent his formative years surfing in Hawaii. Yet Obama is constantly described as an “African-American,” a term used in the US to describe a black person whose ancestors were imported to be slaves from Africa. By that definition, Obama is not an African-American - but it has all been part of Obama’s cleverly crafted strategy to present himself as both black and white whenever it suits him most.

This became obvious in his first post-election victory speech at Iowa on 3 January, which he described as “this defining moment in history” and said, “you know, they said this day would never come”. That a man in suit-and-tie would win a caucus in Iowa? Or because he was bi-racial? He has since used those same words in letters appealing for funds, one of which fluttered through my letterbox the other day - but not one reporter, to the best of my knowledge, has dared asked him why his victory was so historic.

Then he preached at Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta about how “my daddy left me when I was two years old...and I was raised by a single-parent mother ... and I needed hope” - true if you discount his Indonesian step-father and then his well-off white grandparents in Hawaii, who effectively became his parents when he was 10.

Last month I described Obama’s cleverly choreographed media events in Kenya, when an old lady widely described as his grandmother was produced. A few days ago, it was time for more photo-opportunities in El Dorado, in the heart of the frozen plains of Kansas, where his white maternal grandfather was born.

“Thank you for welcoming me back to the place my family called home,” he roared, failing to mention that he had never once been to that place before. Tavis Smiley, the legendary black broadcaster, says that blacks are sceptical of Obama because he does “not have a long-standing relationship with the black community.”

Professor Cornel West of Princeton, likewise, criticises Obama for beginning his campaign in Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield, Illinois, rather than a symbolic place of racial healing like Martin Luther King’s church. The evil legacy of slavery is seared so deeply into the American consciousness, though, that last Tuesday the African-American vote nonetheless went almost entirely to Obama.

So what next? Despite Obama’s record fund-raising last month, the Clinton campaign still has more cash in hand ($50.5m) than Obama’s ($36.1m). Conventional wisdom is that Obama’s impetus will now give him the edge in forthcoming caucuses and primaries, but a painstaking analysis by the Washington Post concluded that Clinton will benefit most. There was something for both sides in last Tuesday’s votes, after all: Obama won the most states, but Hillary won hundreds of thousands more votes.

Super Tuesday II comes on 4 March, when the delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio go to the polls. Then comes Pennsylvania on 22 April, and such is electoral fever that it’s already too late to book a room in Harrisburg for that date. Should no clear winner have emerged by then, the Clintonistas will start furiously arguing that votes by Democrats in Florida and Michigan should count, which party rules currently forbid - or that the states should go back to the polls, which this time would be within the rules. The fun, my friends - as John McCain would say - has hardly started.

Election 2008

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Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Now it gets really dirty

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Are smart toys spying on children?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

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.