Pakistan reborn?

Confounding all predictions, the Pakistani people have clearly demonstrated that they want to choose

It has not been a good year for Pakistan. President Musharraf's sacking of the chief justice last spring, the lawyers' protests that rumbled on throughout the summer and the bloody storming of the Red Mosque in June, followed by a wave of hideous suicide bombings, all gave the impression of a country stumbling from bloody crisis to bloody crisis. By the autumn it had grown even worse. The military defeats suffered by the Pakistani army at the hands of pro-Taliban rebels in Waziristan, the declaration of a state of emergency and, finally, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto led many to predict that Pakistan was stumbling towards full-scale civil war and possibly even disintegration.

All this has of course been grist for the mill for the Pakistan-bashers. Martin Amis, typical of the current rash of instant experts on Islam, wrote recently: "We may wonder how the Islamists feel when they compare India to Pakistan, one a burgeoning democratic superpower, the other barely distinguishable from a failed state." In the run-up to the elections, the Washington Post, among many other commentators, was predicting that the poll would lead to a major international crisis.

That the election went ahead with no more violence and ballot-rigging than is considered customary in south Asian polls, and that a new government will apparently come to power peacefully, unopposed by Musharraf or the army, should now give pause for thought and a calmer reassessment of the country that many have long written off as a basket case.

Certainly, there is no question that during the past few years, and more pressingly since the death of Benazir Bhutto on 27 December last year, Pakistan has been struggling with an existential crisis. At the heart of this lay the central question: what sort of country did Pakistanis want? Did they want a western-style liberal democracy, as envisaged by Pakistan's founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah? An Islamic republic like Mullah Omar's Afghanistan? Or a military-ruled junta of the sort created by Generals Ayub Khan, Zia and Musharraf, and which has ruled Pakistan for 34 of its 60 years of existence?

That question now seems to have been resolved, at least temporarily. Like most other people given the option, Pakistanis clearly want the ability to choose their own rulers, and to determine their own future. The country I saw over the past few days on a long road trip from Lahore in the Punjab down through rural Sindh to Karachi was not a failed state, nor anything even approaching the "most dangerous country in the world".

It is true that frequent shortages of electricity made the country feel a bit like Britain during the winter of discontent, and I was told at one point that I should not continue along certain roads near the Bhutto stronghold of Larkana as there were dacoits (highwaymen) ambushing people after dark. But by and large, the countryside I passed through was calm, and not obviously less prosperous-looking than its subcontinental neighbour. It was certainly a far cry from the terminal lawlessness and instability of post-occupation Iraq or Afghanistan.

The infrastructure of the country is still in many ways better than that of India, and Pakistan still has the best airports and road network in the region. As for the economy, it may be in difficulties, with fast-rising inflation and shortages of gas, electricity and flour; but over the past few years the Pakistani economy has been growing almost as strongly as that of India. You can see the effects everywhere: in 2003 the country had fewer than three million cellphone users; today there are almost 50 million. Car ownership has been increasing at roughly 40 per cent a year since 2001; foreign direct investment has risen from $322m in 2001 to $3.5bn in 2006.

Pakistan is clearly not a country on the verge of civil war. Certainly it is a country at the crossroads, with huge economic and educational problems, hideous inequalities and serious unresolved questions about its future. There is much confusion and disillusion. There is also serious civil unrest, suicide bombings and an insurgency spilling out of the tribal areas on the Afghan border. But judging by the conversations I had, it is also a resilient country that now appears to recognise democracy as its best hope. On my recent travels I found an almost unanimous consensus that the mullahs should keep to their mosques and the military should return to their barracks, like their Indian counterpart. Much violence and unrest no doubt lie ahead. But Pakistan is not about to fall apart.

* * *

Elections in south Asia are treated by the people of the region as operating on a quite different basis from those in the west. In Pakistan, as in India, elections are not primarily about ideology or manifesto promises; instead, they are really about power and patronage.

For most voters, elections are about choosing candidates who can outbid their rivals by making a string of local promises that the electors hope they will honour once they get into office. Typically, a parliamentary candidate will go to a village and make promises or give money to one of the village elders, who will then distribute it among his bradari, or clan, which will then vote for the candidate en bloc. To win an election, the most important thing is to win over the elder of the most powerful clan in each village. As well as money, the elder might ask for various favours: a new tarmac road to the village or gas connections for his cousins. All this costs the candidate a considerable sum of money, which it is understood he must then recoup through corruption when he gets into office; this is why corruption is rarely an important election issue in Pakistan: instead, it is believed to be be an indispensable part of the system.

According to the conventional wisdom in Pakistan, only one thing can overrule loyalty to a clan, and that is loyalty to a zamindar (feudal landowner). Democracy has never thrived in Pakistan in part because landowning has historically been the social base from which politicians emerge, especially in rural areas. Benazir Bhutto was from a feudal family in Sindh; so is Asif Zardari, her husband and current co-chairman of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), as also is Makhdoom Amin Fahim, the most likely candidate for prime minister. The educated middle class - which in India gained control in 1947 - and even more so the rural peasantry, are still largely excluded from Pakistan's political process. There are no Pakistani equivalents of Indian peasant leaders such as Laloo Prasad Yadav, the village cowherd-turned-former chief minister of Bihar, or Mayawati, the Dalit (untouchable) leader and current chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Instead, in many of the more backward parts of Pakistan, the local feudal landowner could usually expect his people to vote for his chosen candidate. As the writer Ahmed Rashid put it, "In some constituencies if the feudals put up their dog as a candidate, that dog would get elected with 99 per cent of the vote."

Such loyalty could be enforced. Many of the biggest zamindars are said to have private prisons, and most of them have private armies. In the more remote and lawless areas there is also the possibility that the zamindars and their thugs will bribe or threaten polling agents, then simply stuff the ballot boxes with thousands of votes for themselves.

Yet this is now clearly beginning to change, and this change has been give huge impetus by the national polls. The election results show that the old stranglehold on Pakistani politics that used to reduce national polls to a kind of elective feudalism may finally be beginning to break down. In Jhang district of the rural Punjab, for example, as many as ten of the 11 winning candidates are from middle-class backgrounds: sons of revenue officers, senior policemen, functionaries in the civil bureaucracy and so on, rather than the usual zamindars.

The Punjab is the richest and most developed part of rural Pakistan; but even in backward Sindh there are signs of change, too. Khairpur, on the banks of the Indus, is the heartland of exactly the sort of unreformed local landowners who epitomise the stereotype painted by metropolitan Pakistani sophisticates when they roll their eyes and talk about "the feudals". Yet even here, members of the local middle class have just stood successfully for election against the local zamindars.

Nafisa Shah is the impeccably middle-class daughter of a local lawyer promoted in the PPP by Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the 1970s; she is currently at Oxford doing a PhD in honour killings. She was standing in the same constituency as Sadruddin Shah, who is often held up as the epitome of feudal excess, and who went electioneering with five pick-up trucks full of his private militia, armed with pump-action shotguns.

As you drive along the bypass his face, complete with Dick Dastardly moustache, sneers down from hoardings placed every 50 yards along the road. In the past week the local press had been full of stories of his men shooting at crowds of little boys shouting pro-Benazir slogans. Shah was standing, as usual, for no fewer than three different seats; this time, however, to the amazement of locals, the PhD student and her PPP allies have all but wiped out Shah and his fellow candidates of the PML-Functional, so that Shah himself won only in his own home town.

Even the most benign feudal lords suffered astonishing reverses. Mian Najibuddin Owaisi was not just the popular feudal lord of the village of Khanqah Sharif in the southern Punjab, he was also the sajjada nasheen, the descendant of the local Sufi saint, and so regarded as a holy man as well as the local landowner. But recently Najibuddin made the ill-timed switch from supporting Nawaz Sharif's PML-N to the pro-Musharraf Q-league. Talking to the people in the bazaar before the election, his followers announced that they did not like Musharraf, but they would still vote for their landlord:

"Prices are rising," said Haji Sadiq, the cloth salesman, sitting amid bolts of textiles. "There is less and less electricity and gas."

"And what was done to Benazir was quite wrong," agreed his friend Salman.

"But Najib Sahib is our protector," said the haji. "Whatever party he chooses, we will vote for him. Even the Q-league."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because with him in power we have someone we can call if we are in trouble with the police, or need someone to speak to the adminstration," he said.

"When we really need him he looks after us."

"We vote according to local issues only. Who cares about parties?"

Because of Najibuddin's personal popularity, his vote stood up better than many other pro-Musharraf feudals and he polled 38,000 votes. But he still lost, to an independent candidate from a non-feudal, middle-class background named Amir Waran, who took 59,000 votes and ousted the Owaisi family from control of the constituency for the first time since they entered politics in the elections of 1975.

* * *

If the power of Pakistan's feudals is beginning to be whittled away, in the aftermath of these unexpectedly peaceful elections there remain two armed forces that can still affect the future of democracy in the country.

Though the religious parties were routed in the election, especially in the North-West Frontier where the ruling religious MMA alliance was wiped out by the secular ANP, their gun-wielding brothers in Waziristan are not in retreat. In recent months these militants have won a series of notable military victories over the Pakistani army, and spread their revolt within the settled areas of Pakistan proper.

The two assassination attempts on Benazir - the second one horribly successful - and the three recent attacks on Musharraf are just the tip of the iceberg. Every bit as alarming is the degree to which the jihadis now control much of the north-west of Pakistan, and the Swat Valley is still smouldering as government troops and jihadis loyal to the insurgent leader Maulana Fazllullah - aka "Mullah Radio" vie for control. At the moment, the government seems to have won back the area, but the insurgent leaders have all escaped and it remains to be seen how far the new government can stem this growing rebellion.

The second force that has shown a remarkable ability to ignore, or even reverse, the democratic decisions of the Pakistani people is of course the army. Even though Musharraf's political ally the PML-Q has been heavily defeated, leaving him vulnerable to impeachment by the new parliament, the Pakistani army is still formidably powerful. Normally countries have an army; in Pakistan, as in Burma, the army has a country. In her recent book Military, Inc, the political scientist Ayesha Siddiqa attempted to put figures on the degree to which the army controls Pakistan irrespective of who is in power.

Siddiqa estimated, for example, that the army now controls business assets of roughly $20bn and a third of all heavy manufacturing in the country; it also owns 12 million acres of public land and up to 7 per cent of Pakistan's private assets. Five giant conglomerates, known as "welfare foundations", run thousands of businesses, ranging from street-corner petrol pumps and sprawling industrial plants to cement and dredging to the manufacture of cornflakes.

As one human rights activist put it to me, "The army is into every business in this country. Except hairdressing." The army has administrative assets, too. According to Siddiqa, military personnel have "taken over all and every department in the bureaucracy - even the civil service academy is now headed by a major general, while the National School of Public Policy is run by a lieutenant general. The military have completely taken over not just the bureaucracy but every arm of the executive."

But, for all this power, Musharraf has now comprehensively lost the support of his people - a dramatic change from the situation even three years ago when a surprisingly wide cross-section of the country seemed prepared to tolerate military rule. The new army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, who took over when Musharraf stepped down from his military role last year, seems to recognise this and has issued statements about his wish to pull the army back from civilian life, ordering his soldiers to stay out of politics and give up jobs in the bureaucracy.

Though turnout in the election was low, partly due to fear of suicide bombings, almost everyone I talked to was sure that democracy was the best answer to Pakistan's problems, and believed that neither an Islamic state nor a military junta would serve their needs so well. The disintegration of the country, something being discussed widely only a week ago, now seems a distant prospect. Rumours of Pakistan's demise, it seems, have been much exaggerated.

William Dalrymple's latest book, "The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty (Delhi, 1857)", published by Bloomsbury, won the 2007 Duff Cooper Prize for History

Timeline to the vote

6 October 2007 General Musharraf wins most votes in presidential election. The Supreme Court says no winner can be announced formally until it rules whether the general was eligible to stand while he was still army chief

18 October Exiled former premier Benazir Bhutto returns to Pakistan

3 November Musharraf declares emergency rule - caretaker government is sworn in

9 November Bhutto placed briefly under house arrest

28 November Musharraf resigns as army chief. Sworn in as president for second term

29 November Chief election commissioner announces elections are to be held on 8 January

15 December State of emergency lifted

27 December Benazir Bhutto is assassinated at rally near Rawalpindi

2 January 2008 Elections postponed till 18 February

18 February Parliamentary elections. Low turnout amid fears of violence

19 February Musharraf's party concedes defeat

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn

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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.