Israel's secret fears

The nation that sees itself as the most misunderstood in the world celebrates its 60th birthday with

Israel marks its 60th birthday in a climate of increasing racism, intolerance, corruption and militarism. A nation that has long seen itself as one of the most misunderstood is now almost unable to understand the world beyond its borders. Fear and anxiety provide the mood music of the celebrations.

The past decade has brought a sharp increase in anti-Arab sentiment, which finds many forms of expression, from sordid chants at sporting events ("Death to the Arabs") to blatant racism and attacks on Arab colleagues by right-wing pol iticians in the Knesset. In such an atmosphere, it is almost impossible for Arab citizens (or 1948 Palestinians) to identify with the state of Israel, despite the terms of their legal status. Indeed, it is increasingly difficult for them even to protect their civil rights and express themselves freely in public.

Anyone who doubts the depth of anti-Arab feeling has only to scan the internet. On 8 May, I was commissioned by the popular news site Walla! (associated with the newspaper Haaretz) to write a short column about the Israeli national anthem, "Hatikva" (or Hope). Haaretz had asked another writer to support the anthem. I was commissioned to write against it and to suggest a more suitable one.

My main point of opposition was that the opening words - "As long as deep in the heart/A Jewish soul yearns . . . towards Zion" - excluded the more than one million Arab citizens of Israel. Walla! debates are allocated some two hours' airtime and previous ones, for example on economic issues or the evacuation of the Jewish settlements in Gaza, have generated talkback that was overwhelmingly right-wing. However, the anthem debate exceeded even my pessimistic ex pectations.

Within an hour 481 comments had appeared, 472 of which were vehemently anti-Arab and abusive of "bleeding-heart leftists". Some of the comments were simply racist, but the majority were nationalistic, betraying deep hatred of Israel's Arab citizens.

Such expressions are now commonplace. If an Arab member of the Knesset (MK) expresses solidarity with Palestinians in the besieged Gaza area, the comment will be scrutinised minutely by Jewish politicians and journalists. Accusations of high treason are commonplace. Proposed parliamentary bills single out Arab MKs for clearly discriminatory treatment. One right-wing former minister, Avigdor Liberman, regularly threatens his fellow MK Ahmad Tibi in tones that are becoming increasingly brutal. Liberman himself faces serious accusations of corruption and bribery and, as his indictment becomes virtually inevitable, he has resorted to lurid and vociferous language said to go down well in his largely Russian-speaking constituency.

Amid intensifying hostility and even derision, the Jewish left and a handful of liberals from the political centre try to voice their protest. Centrist Zionists dissociate themselves from anti-Arab sentiment and claim there is no contradiction between Israel's claim to be a liberal democracy and the view that the Zionist nature of Israel is paramount and transcends norms of equality and democracy. Others claim anti-Arab feeling stems from misguided nationalism rather than racism. A reputable economist in Tel Aviv compared "the fervent patriotism in Israel, accompanied by lurid hostility against Arabs" with anti-German sentiment in Britain before the Great War.

"It is not 'racist' in the sense of generalising the entire Arab population or regarding them as inferior to us," he told me. "If the Israelis and the Palestinians were to reach a peace agreement, the hatred would evaporate." Depressing as it may seem, that was one of the most optimistic statements I heard during the anniversary celebrations.

To celebrate Independence Day this year, Israeli television screened a documentary about the 1948 war veterans. The normally alienated and cosmopolitan television producers and directors had flooded our screens with sickening, even embarrassing, bits of nostalgia. This documentary, however, was a gem. The veterans in the film, some approaching their nineties and therefore somewhat frail, were taken to the southernmost Israeli city of Eilat, on the shores of the Red Sea.

All had taken part in the bloodless capture of Eilat and had become famous 60 years earlier for raising, in the beautiful bay, a handmade Israeli flag painted in ink, thus securing Israel's access to the Red Sea.

At one important moment in the film, they were requested to state their views on Israel today. Had it met the expectations they had had back in 1948? Were they pleased with the way Israel had evolved? All expressed bitter disappointment, pointing to rampant corruption, the accusations of bribery laid against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and the nation's collective failure to secure a peace agreement with its Arab neighbours, including the Palestinians.

The most articulate of the veterans was Major General Avraham Adan, chief commander during the occupation of Eilat and the only senior officer, apart from Ariel Sharon, to emerge from the disastrous 1973 Yom Kippur War with flying colours. Adan masterminded the crossing of the Suez Canal in that traumatic war and has felt ever since that Sharon stole the glory which rightly belonged to him. Clear and lucid at 89, Adan was blatant in his criticism.

"Israel has changed for the worse," said the general. "Corruption gnaws at our fabric and threatens our very existence. We dreamed about a different, more egalitarian and more moral society."

Undoubtedly, Adan was expressing the feelings of most Israelis. Successive polls in Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's most popular daily newspaper, show that the vast majority of Israelis do not trust the Establishment and are deeply wary of Olmert. Accusations of bribery are rife and it is almost certain that the prime minister will be indicted.

Uneasy conformists

Israel's Jews are conformist in their attitudes to institutions such as the anthem or the army, but they have become more aware of the impotence of their government and, at times, of its malevolence. The failure of the Israel Defence Forces in the Second Lebanon War of 2006 undermined the confidence of ordinary Israelis: the beneficiary of the crisis has been the right-wing Likud Party.

On 2 May, Haaretz carried an interview with Yaakov Weinroth, a respected barrister and self-professed Marxist. The paper's intelligent readership was treated to a breathtaking tour de force from this anti-corruption orator (who is, nevertheless, the legal adviser of most of Israel's corrupt politicians and of the settlers). Weinroth spoke at length in favour of social justice, yet expressed his support for the neoliberal Likud leader, Binyamin Netanyahu. Such contradictions confuse public opinion, and enhance Netanyahu's status not only in intellectual circles, but even among the direct victims of his social policies. False consciousness is not unique to Israel, but the geopolitical isolation of the country exacerbates the situation.

Perhaps the most telling sign of the nation's fear and distrust of the world outside came in the recent reaction to criticism levelled at the Chelsea Football Club coach Avram Grant in England. Grant has become an unlikely cult hero in his native Israel. Aviad Pohoryles, a sports commentator for Maariv, a popular Hebrew-language newspaper, found in Chelsea's unexpected win over Liverpool an opportunity to berate the British for their supposed anti-Israel attitude. England, he claimed, had always conducted a blatantly anti-Israel foreign policy: "Some of Grant's lack of legitimacy derives from this negative attitude towards Israel. Grant's presence at Stamford Bridge constitutes a certain answer to these heartless people."

Pohoryles is a reputed writer from the very mainstream, neither a settler nor a vehement right-winger. His deep suspicion of the British media, and his castigation of a journalist who happened to be critical of Grant's coaching style, hinting that the journalist's criticism was founded in anti-Semitism, are typical of an antipathy towards the British. There is a widely held belief that when the west criticises Israel, or when human rights organisations worldwide protest against the occupation, they are revealing deeply held, "traditional, Christian anti-Semitism".

Many Israelis, even liberals and left-wingers, hold Europeans morally responsible for the Holocaust either by participating in, or being indifferent to, the annihilation of the Jews during the Second World War. It would be a mistake to underestimate the profound influence such attitudes continue to wield on Israeli politics.

Haim Baram is a writer based in Jerusalem

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel

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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.