Zimbabwe goes to the brink

The "Big Man", last of the independence leaders, never seriously contemplated defeat writes Alec Rus

As starry-eyed supporters of the Zimbabwean opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) queued to vote on Saturday 29 March there were far too many police around for them to dare make their feelings plain. So, instead, a series of irreverent text messages hummed from polling station to polling station across the country.

"Bob 23 verses one to five," started one, a spoof of Psalm 23. "Mugabe is my shepherd I shall not work. He makes me to lie down on park benches. He leads me to be a thief, a prostitute, a liar and an asylum-seeker. He restores my faith in MDC. He guides me in the path of unemployment. Though I walk in the valley of Zim I shall still be hungry!!!"

"Do you know anyone with a pick-up truck?" ran another. "I have a client who I want to move. He is moving this weekend from State House to Kutama [Mugabe's rural retreat]."

For almost 24 hours the same giddy mood prevailed among supporters of the MDC. Few celebrated publicly. Most in Harare walked home from the polls - almost everyone walks in Zimbabwe these days to save the cost of a standard bus fare, Z$40,000 or about US$1, equivalent to a tenth of a standard labourer's monthly wage - keeping their voting preference to themselves and their close friends. But increasingly people dared to dream that, after 28 years in power - and three disputed elections in the past eight years - the "old man" was finally on his way out.

Such optimism reached fever pitch after a pre-dawn press conference on the Sunday morning following voting, when Tendai Biti, the puckish secretary general of the MDC, strode to a podium and informed bleary-eyed diplomats and journalists that his party was comfortably ahead. But, for watchers of state television, it all came to a juddering halt a few minutes before midnight on Sunday night. ZBC was playing an unbelievably bad movie premised on Jim Hawkins running into Long John Silver in the Caribbean 20 years after the Treasure Island escapade and falling in love with his daughter.

Suddenly Long John et al vanished off the screen to be replaced by the expressionless features of a correspondent at the state-appointed Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC).

The presenter quickly introduced Judge George Chiweshe, chairman of the ZEC. He had last been seen that same day as he was chased across the lobby of a Harare hotel by outraged MDC supporters demanding to know why he had not released any results. This time he was on safer ground. He was in the election command centre in central Harare.

People who were complaining about the time it was taking to verify the results should be patient, he told the nation. "It's an involving and laborious process. It takes time for results to filter through." And as for "stakeholders" (read the MDC) who had ventured to release early results: "The commission would like to reiterate that it and it alone is the sole legitimate source of all results."

Innocents in the world of Zimbabwe's ruling Zanu-PF party might have struggled to understand the import of what developed into a 20-minute ramble. To the MDC, however, the message was all too stark. After 24 hours of seemingly being stunned into silence, the authorities had returned to the fray: Mugabe and Zanu-PF were not going to go easily.

Party insiders say that Mugabe was startled by the initial returns from polling stations, which made it clear he was heading for defeat.

For the previous 12 months his senior aides had stacked the odds in his favour. In March last year they gave orders to agricultural equipment companies to have large numbers of rotivators, and rather smaller numbers of tractors, ready for March 2008. These were duly rolled out with great fanfare to small farmers in impoverished rural communities in the weeks leading up to the 29 March vote. Food aid was doled out to party supporters and, according to a dogged Human Rights Watch researcher, Tiseke Kasambala, denied to MDC supporters. The ZBC churned out endless encomia to the president, or the Fist of Empowerment, as he is called on election posters.

Meanwhile, day after day, giant rallies of happy, smiling people greeted him on the campaign trail, presumably reassuring him that the opposition talk of economic implosion had not been accepted by his loyal people.

As the New Statesman went to press it was clear that despite Zanu-PF's advantages it was all but impossible for it to deny the MDC had won and also that insiders in the ruling party were realising there was no way to massage the outcome. A projection by an independent survey group underlined the difficulty the ZEC would have in issuing results giving Mugabe victory. The findings gave Morgan Tsvangirai's MDC 49.4 per cent, with Mugabe 41.8 per cent.

This suggested that the MDC leader was below the 50 per cent-plus-one vote mark he needed to avoid a run-off, but the MDC's results suggested he had enough votes to avoid a run-off. In short, Mugabe had been beaten.

He was not going to go without a fight. On Sunday night he met the "securocrats" of the Joint Operations Command, the body of security, intelligence and military chiefs who in recent years have increasingly dominated policymaking. According to some accounts of the meeting, some dared to take a "dovish" stance and suggest that the veteran autocrat should consider reaching an accommodation with the MDC.

The ultra-hawks urging an immediate declaration of a state of emergency were believed to have been talked out of such a drastic response. But what is widely believed to have been the final decision was hardly conciliatory. It was to stall for time, order the ZEC to dribble out results slowly and see if they could not end up "fixing" the election in the counting process, a senior former Zanu-PF official said. Not long afterwards, the ZBC interrupted Treasure Island 2 or whatever it was and introduced Chiweshe into Zimbabwean living rooms.

The phenomenon of a long-serving independence leader being rejected by his people has been seen before in Southern Africa. Kenneth Kaunda, the veteran Zambian leader with a penchant for waving handkerchiefs, was unceremoniously dumped by the electorate in 1991. Then, in 1994, Hastings Banda, the eccentric Malawian tyrant, suffered a similar ejection from State House. Both ultimately accepted their lot.

In recent weeks both Tsvangirai and Simba Makoni, Mugabe's other challenger, a former finance minister, have tried to tempt Mugabe to bow out gracefully. Both indicated to me in interviews that they would not seek to humiliate the former hero of the independence era if he lost.

Clinging to power

But while Mugabe was unwilling to follow the lead of these regional predecessors - Harare legend has it that he laughed scornfully when he heard that Kaunda had lost power through the ballot box - increasingly, as the days passed after the elections, MDC optimism grew that a deal would be struck with some of the more conciliatory generals loyal to his regime. They would then, the MDC hoped, aided by support from regional leaders, persuade Mugabe to step down.

The smart money among diplomats and regional analysts is betting that even if Mugabe does finagle his way back into power and cheat Tsvangirai of his apparent victory, he cannot hope to last long in office. Makoni's defection, while not backed in public by many senior cadres, reflects an increasingly mutinous sentiment within Zanu-PF. While inflation on paper is a "mere" 100,000 per cent, economists expect it may be 500,000 by the end of this month.

Whatever happens, Mugabe's aura of invincibility has been destroyed by the dramatic events of the past week.

An extension of his rule, even by, say, six months, would be a disaster for Zimbabwe. Yet more desperate people would flee across the southern border to join the between one and three million who have already crossed into South Africa. Infant mortality, illiteracy and all those other statistics that made Zimbabwe in Mugabe's early years in power the envy of sub-Saharan Africa would continue to rise.

In short, the spoof Psalm 23 would suddenly seem rather unfunny. At the time of writing it was still possible that Mugabe would try to dig his heels in one last time. But there was a sense that one of the last of Africa's "Big Men" independence leaders was on his way out.

Alec Russell is Southern Africa correspondent of the Financial Times

Zimbabwe in numbers

100,000+% rate of inflation

Z$100,000 = £1.70

Z$6.6m official cost of a loaf of bread

Z$15m black-market cost of a loaf of bread

37 average life expectancy

80% unemployment rate

15.6% of population is infected with HIV/Aids

75% of doctors emigrate after earning medical degree

45% of Zimbabweans are malnourished

5.9m registered voters

9m ballots printed by Electoral Commission

Research by Jax Jacobsen

This article first appeared in the 07 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British jihad

Fox via YouTube
Show Hide image

Are smart toys spying on children?

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.