A We-Vibe lawsuit is starting a conversation about sex toy data collection

An online initiative is trying to safeguard your connected sex life

Thank you World Wide Web. You bless us with your bizarreness. If it's not a pug in a tutu it's a politician tweeting his own name and this year we've been gifted the most bizarrely beautiful story of all: The Internet of Dongs Initiative.

Yet unlike dancing dogs and Ed Balls, the IoD has some substance. Earlier this year the parent company of the app-controllable vibrator We-Vibe, Canadian outfit Standard Innovations, was sued by an unnamed American woman for collecting the user's intimate information without consent.

The lawsuit alleges that the We-Vibe, which connects to a smartphone app to allow partners remote control over the Bluetooth-initiated vibrator's settings, records the date and time and length of each interaction, plus device temperature as well as favoured settings. The suit also alleges the consumer's personal email address was collected by the company.

Ding Dong

For those that use health and fitness wearables, privacy concerns are old hat. As noted here on Wareable, Jawbone had its hardware audited by a third-party security firm due to user concerns. Brad 'RenderMan' Haines, the founder of IoD, a community of security researchers and hackers, told Wareable that the auditing of sex toys is even more crucial.

"The issue with any information from these devices is the intimate and private nature of their use and what that data can mean," he said. "Usage data is routinely collected for a huge number of devices: phones, thermostats, video game consoles. That data however isn't as intimate."

Read this: We read your wearable's terms and conditions for you

"Knowing that someone plays a video game for two hours starting at 1pm on a Tuesday isn't a big deal," he continued. "Knowing that your sex toy is in use for two hours starting at 1pm on a Tuesday is an entirely different matter. I think that vendors need to be pre-emptive in having transparent disclosure because people are very cautious about anything that crosses the boundary of the bedroom door."

Haines said that while the sensitive nature of this information may not seem like a big issue right now, he predicts that once it becomes known to be available the date could be used, for example, as proof of infidelity in a divorce case, in similar fashion to the way in which a woman's Fitbit was used in a case of sexual harassment earlier this year.

A We-Vibe lawsuit is starting a conversation about sex toy data collection

Audit already

Haines set up the IoD to "audit sex toys in order to secure best practice and manufacturers' trust." But what is best practice?

"The sex toy industry is changing from primarily manually operated devices to connected devices with chipsets, wireless protocols, apps and new threats," he said. "We are hoping to educate the industry about standard InfoSec (information security). It's 2016, there's no excuse for not encrypting all communications. It's about realising that requiring personal identifiers like email addresses are really bad things to use for these apps and devices and putting respect for the users' privacy and security first in their design and development."

Sex blogger Girl on the Net told Wareable that this won't be the last time we see people getting nervous about sex toy data sharing. She says that "toys which learn what you respond best to and store patterns/settings for future use are becoming increasingly popular" and because there are more and more connected sex toys on the market she's "100% sure we'll see more worries about data and sex toys in 2017."

Take notice

Are sex toy companies taking privacy concerns seriously? I contacted We-Vibe regarding the lawsuit. They told me that they significantly updated the We-Connect app and its privacy notice in October and, as a result, customers no longer need to provide their name, email or phone number – or other identifying information – to use the app.

Swedish sex toy brand Lelo also collects user data for its Remoji product. The company sent me a statement that said that the app collects usage data for the purpose of improving the app but that all the data is "collected anonymously" and that it doesn't record "which user generates what kind of data."

Likewise, OhMiBod, another remote sex toy with an app, "does not accrue any specific device or customer usage data." Those are the words of founder Brian Dunham, who told Wareable that "privacy is obviously a top priority for any company dealing with customer data" and that "it's important that all companies spell out, in their privacy policy, what data is collected and why and – even more importantly – how it's used."

The big D

The lawsuit has certainly sparked a debate and thus far sex toy firms are responding to concern positively. Down the line, we may even see the research benefits of such data collection as long as everything stays truly anonymous. Dr Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author of Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment, told me that data of this nature could be very useful if it was used to refine interactivity, dispel myths and learn more about human sexual experiences. As long as people are informed about what's being gathered and reasonable steps are taken towards protecting privacy, "there are endless things that could be learned from this sort of data," she said.

Girl on the Net agreed, adding that she could actually see data from connected sex toys being used to combat shame. "If we can say X% of people use toys at least X times each week, for instance, it's way harder for anyone to hold up the idea that masturbation and sex are somehow dirty," she argued. "More knowledge here is good, I think, and big data could provide that."


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