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Your Sex Toy Is Watching You

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Written by Lorelei Mihala

Sex toys are a modern marvel. They allow the opportunity to orgasm with or without a partner and without tiring out a hand (or two). If you have yet to own your own, chances are you’ve thought about it and why invest in just any toy when you can invest in a smart sex toy?

When goods are as high in-demand as intimacy products are, innovation is bound to happen. In our AI-loving world it is a predictable pivot that there are now countless massagers with advanced technological capabilities. One smart toy in particular, called We-Vibe, is a vibrator that launched in 2008 and is designed for partners to stay in very affectionate touch with one another regardless of the distance between them. The associated application, appropriately dubbed We-Connect, allows one partner to control the other partner’s vibrations between their legs from anywhere in the world. The app also gives you the option to video chat or text while the vibrator is working its magic.

As exciting as enhanced masturbation seems, society is coming to realize—thanks in part to massive social media platforms—tech is sometimes too good to be true. Just as you hoped your Snapchat stories remained between you and your selected audience, smart vibrator customers are giving away a lot more than many are aware. Smart toys, like We-Vibe, are collecting your information and they aren’t quick to erase it either.

There wasn’t much stopping companies like We-Vibe, with over five millions customers, from collecting data about intimate moments (though not linked to individual users)—that is, until legal action was taken. In September 2016, an Illinois woman filed a lawsuit in a Chicago federal court against the massager’s Canadian manufacturer, Standard Innovation. The lawsuit raised concerns about the privacy when using a smart vibrator, accusing the application of data collection, allowing anyone within Bluetooth range the power to seize control of the device. Data was also collected and sent back to Standard Innovation, meaning the company has insight into their users’ most minute sexual preferences like vibration intensity.Standard Innovation was forced to pay a total of $3.75 million to customers, each awarded varying amounts of money based on whether they used the app in addition to purchasing the vibrator. Playboy reached out to Denny Alexander, communications manager and spokesperson for We-Vibe, who insists the company has since rectified their privacy problem: “In September 2016, we responded rapidly to concerns about app privacy and security by enhancing our privacy notice, increasing app security, providing customers more choice in the data they share, and we continue to work with leading privacy and security experts to improve the app.” He goes on, “In 2017, we agreed to settle a US class action lawsuit to allow us to focus on our business of designing and creating products. It’s important to know that We-Vibe customer data was not hacked or compromised, it was not shared with third parties and app use data was not linked to individual users.”

Alexander furthers that We-Vibe’s efforts to tackle privacy breaches are on-going even though the lawsuit is far behind the company. He claims that while data is still used to aggregate information, their anonymous forms ensure privacy. Customers also have the option to opt out of “sharing anonymous app usage data in the settings. The app has discretion lock that when enabled and can only be unlocked with the correct PIN code.”

But is it enough? According to global market research firm Technavio, the global adult toys market is set to exceed $29 billion by 2020 with a growth rate of 7 percent over a four year period. Due to its popularity—that shows no sign of slowing down—all sex accessory fans should be able to experience the undulating pleasures of what promises to be better orgasms without worrying about having their own modern rendition of One Night in Paris.

Of course, We-Connect, is hardly the only smart sex toy company in existence. Competitors like Vibease are learning from We-Connect’s very public mistake and keeping user privacy in mind every step of the way. While there is no way of determining which of the slew of sexy tech companies are doing the most to protect your data, they are all troubleshooting in different ways. According to co-founder Dema Tio, Vibease uses “industry-standard technology such as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption for data transmission and other best practices.” He continues, “Our application is developed in-house by our own team. We don’t outsource of application development.”

Tio’s version of the smart sex toy can also function remotely and pairs with an app with a built-in messaging and video chat system, but the product is also operates on a single pairing system. “Once the vibrator is paired with one phone, there is no other phone can connect to the vibrator until the reset button is pressed. This is to make sure only the owner that can connect to the vibrator,” he says.  As for data, Tio affirms that Vibease doesn’t distribute information, but “the application collects email address, user ID, gender and age for the purpose of customer service. The application also collects anonymized analytic data such as the type of mobile device, operating system and crash reports.”

Lovense, another kinky smart toy that specializes in music-triggered vibrations, defends that collecting some sort of data is a necessary evil to truly satisfy consumers. “Customers are not happy when they experience disconnections, and, as a response, we must run diagnostics and assist in resolving these issues. This is where having device data is useful. It helps us address customers’ issues and improving the quality of our products,” says Joris Guisado, director of sales and marketing.

Those outside of the sex toy business agree. When it comes to anything that is smarter than the average object it will never be 100 percent guaranteed that your purchase, not the mention what you do with that purchase, will be safe from uninvited eyes. “When it comes to your sex toy and data, consider that information about your sex life should be like information about your health in general,” advises Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, an Internet of Things designer and consultant. “You should have total control over it. You should be able to download the data collected (this might mean location and duration of use as well as option used) and erase it from the device.”

Much of what Deschamps-Sonsino suggests will be granted too—at least in the European Union. As of May 25, countries part of the European Union will legally grant customers full access to their data and to the information their vibrator recorded. With the new General Data Protection Regulation (or GDPR), one can get confirmation from the given data controller confirmation if, when, why and how data concerning them is being processed. Further, the controller must provide a copy of the personal data, free of charge, in an electronic format.

The United States, however, has not declared any plans to follow suit. And just because you know about your data doesn’t mean time with your smart sex toy will be kept behind closed doors. It’s up to you to decide: Is the enhanced orgasm worth it?