John Pilger on Latin America: the attack on democracy

An unreported war is being waged by the US to restore power to the privileged.

Beyond the sound and fury of its conquest of Iraq and campaign against Iran, the world's dominant power is waging a largely unreported war on another continent - Latin America. Using proxies, Washington aims to restore and reinforce the political control of a privileged group calling itself middle-class, to shift the responsibility for massacres and drug trafficking away from the psychotic regime in Colombia and its mafiosi, and to extinguish hopes raised among Latin America's impoverished majority by the reform governments of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

In Colombia, the main battleground, the class nature of the war is distorted by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the Farc, whose own resort to kidnapping and the drugs trade has provided an instrument with which to smear those who have distinguished Latin America's epic history of rebellion by opposing the proto-fascism of George W Bush's regime. "You don't fight terror with terror," said President Hugo Chávez as US warplanes bombed to death thousands of civilians in Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 attacks. Thereafter, he was a marked man. Yet, as every poll has shown, he spoke for the great majority of human beings who have grasped that the "war on terror" is a crusade of domination. Almost alone among national leaders standing up to Bush, Chávez was declared an enemy and his plans for a functioning social democracy independent of the United States a threat to Washington's grip on Latin America. "Even worse," wrote the Latin America specialist James Petras, "Chávez's nationalist policies represented an alternative in Latin America at a time (2000-2003) when mass insurrections, popular uprisings and the collapse of pro-US client rulers (Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia) were constant front-page news."

It is impossible to underestimate the threat of this alternative as perceived by the "middle classes" in countries which have an abundance of privilege and poverty. In Venezuela, their "grotesque fantasies of being ruled by a 'brutal communist dictator'", to quote Petras, are reminiscent of the paranoia of the white population that backed South Africa's apartheid regime. Like in South Africa, racism in Venezuela is rampant, with the poor ignored, despised or patronised, and a Caracas shock jock allowed casually to dismiss Chávez, who is of mixed race, as a "monkey". This fatuous venom has come not only from the super-rich behind their walls in suburbs called Country Club, but from the pretenders to their ranks in middle-level management, journalism, public relations, the arts, education and the other professions, who identify vicariously with all things American. Journalists in broadcasting and the press have played a crucial role - acknowledged by one of the generals and bankers who tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Chávez in 2002. "We couldn't have done it without them," he said. "The media were our secret weapon."

Many of these people regard themselves as liberals, and have the ear of foreign journalists who like to describe themselves as being "on the left". This is not surprising. When Chávez was first elected in 1998, Venezuela was not an archetypical Latin American tyranny, but a liberal democracy with certain freedoms, run by and for its elite, which had plundered the oil revenue and let crumbs fall to the invisible millions in the barrios. A pact between the two main parties, known as puntofijismo, resembled the convergence of new Labour and the Tories in Britain and Republicans and Democrats in the US. For them, the idea of popular sovereignty was anathema, and still is.

Take higher education. At the taxpayer-funded elite "public" Venezuelan Central University, more than 90 per cent of the students come from the upper and "middle" classes. These and other elite students have been infiltrated by CIA-linked groups and, in defending their privilege, have been lauded by foreign liberals.

With Colombia as its front line, the war on democracy in Latin America has Chávez as its main target. It is not difficult to understand why. One of Chávez's first acts was to revitalise the oil producers' organisation Opec and force the oil price to record levels. At the same time he reduced the price of oil for the poorest countries in the Caribbean region and central America, and used Venezuela's new wealth to pay off debt, notably Argentina's, and, in effect, expelled the International Monetary Fund from a continent over which it once ruled. He has cut poverty by half - while GDP has risen dramatically. Above all, he gave poor people the confidence to believe that their lives would improve.

The irony is that, unlike Fidel Castro in Cuba, he presented no real threat to the well-off, who have grown richer under his presidency. What he has demonstrated is that a social democracy can prosper and reach out to its poor with genuine welfare, and without the extremes of "neo liberalism" - a decidedly unradical notion once embraced by the British Labour Party. Those ordinary Vene zuelans who abstained during last year's constitutional referendum were protesting that a "moderate" social democracy was not enough while the bureaucrats remained corrupt and the sewers overflowed.

Across the border in Colombia, the US has made Venezuela's neighbour the Israel of Latin America. Under "Plan Colombia", more than $6bn in arms, planes, special forces, mercenaries and logistics have been showered on some of the most murderous people on earth: the inheritors of Pinochet's Chile and the other juntas that terrorised Latin America for a generation, their various gestapos trained at the School of the Americas in Georgia. "We not only taught them how to torture," a former American trainer told me, "we taught them how to kill, murder, eliminate." That remains true of Colombia, where government-inspired mass terror has been documented by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and many others. In a study of 31,656 extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances between 1996 and 2006, the Colombian Commission of Jurists found that 46 per cent had been murdered by right-wing death squads and 14 per cent by Farc guerrillas. The para militaries were responsible for most of the three million victims of internal displacement. This misery is a product of Plan Colombia's pseudo "war on drugs", whose real purpose has been to eliminate the Farc. To that goal has now been added a war of attrition on the new popular democracies, especially Venezuela.

US special forces "advise" the Colombian military to cross the border into Venezuela and murder and kidnap its citizens and infiltrate paramilitaries, and so test the loyalty of the Venezuelan armed forces. The model is the CIA-run Contra campaign in Honduras in the 1980s that brought down the reformist government in Nicaragua. The defeat of the Farc is now seen as a prelude to an all-out attack on Venezuela if the Vene zuelan elite - reinvigorated by its narrow referendum victory last year - broadens its base in state and local government elections in November.

America's man and Colombia's Pinochet is President Álvaro Uribe. In 1991, a declassified report by the US Defence Intelligence Agency revealed the then Senator Uribe as having "worked for the Medellín Cartel" as a "close personal friend" of the cartel's drugs baron, Pablo Escobar. To date, 62 of his political allies have been investigated for close collaboration with paramilitaries. A feature of his rule has been the fate of journalists who have illuminated his shadows. Last year, four leading journalists received death threats after criticising Uribe. Since 2002, at least 31 journalists have been assassinated in Colombia. Uribe's other habit is smearing trade unions and human rights workers as "collaborators with the Farc". This marks them. Colombia's death squads, wrote Jenny Pearce, author of the acclaimed Under the Eagle: US Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean (1982), "are increasingly active, confident that the president has been so successful in rallying the country against the Farc that little attention will shift to their atrocities".

Uribe was personally championed by Tony Blair, reflecting Britain's long-standing, mostly secret role in Latin America. "Counter-insurgency assistance" to the Colombian military, up to its neck in death-squad alliances, includes training by the SAS of units such as the High Mountain Battalions, condemned repeatedly for atrocities. On 8 March, Colombian officers were invited by the Foreign Office to a "counter-insurgency seminar" at the Wilton Park conference centre in southern England. Rarely has the Foreign Office so brazenly paraded the killers it mentors.

The western media's role follows earlier models, such as the campaigns that cleared the way for the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the credibility given to lies about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The softening-up for an attack on Venezuela is well under way, with the repetition of similar lies and smears.

 

Cocaine trail

 

On 3 February, the Observer devoted two pages to claims that Chávez was colluding in the Colombian drugs trade. Similarly to the paper's notorious bogus scares linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda, the Observer's headline read, "Revealed: Chávez role in cocaine trail to Europe". Allegations were unsubstantiated; hearsay uncorroborated. No source was identified. Indeed, the reporter, clearly trying to cover himself, wrote: "No source I spoke to accused Chávez himself of having a direct role in Colombia's giant drug trafficking business."

In fact, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has reported that Venezuela is fully participating in international anti-drugs programmes and in 2005 seized the third-highest amount of cocaine in the world. Even the Foreign Office minister Kim Howells has referred to "Venezuela's tre mendous co-operation".

The drugs smear has recently been reinforced with reports that Chávez has an "increasingly public alliance [with] the Farc" (see "Dangerous liaisons", New Statesman, 14 April). Again, there is "no evidence", says the secretary general of the Organisation of American States. At Uribe's request, and backed by the French government, Chávez played a mediating role in seeking the release of hostages held by the Farc. On 1 March, the negotiations were betrayed by Uribe who, with US logistical assistance, fired missiles at a camp in Ecuador, killing Raú Reyes, the Farc's highest-level negotiator. An "email" recovered from Reyes's laptop is said by the Colombian military to show that the Farc has received $300m from Chávez. The allegation is fake. The actual document refers only to Chávez in relation to the hostage exchange. And on 14 April, Chávez angrily criticised the Farc. "If I were a guerrilla," he said, "I wouldn't have the need to hold a woman, a man who aren't soldiers. Free the civilians!"

However, these fantasies have lethal purpose. On 10 March, the Bush administration announced that it had begun the process of placing Venezuela's popular democracy on a list of "terrorist states", along with North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Sudan and Iran, the last of which is currently awaiting attack by the world's leading terrorist state.

http://www.johnpilger.com

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!

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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.