How private is your sex life?

We-vibe 4 boxesThis image has 3 we-vibe 4 boxes turned slightly away from the camera. The one to the left shows the black we-vibe 4, the middle one shows the pink version and the one on the right shows the purple version.

Content warning: mention of sexual violence and consent violation

Unbeknownst to me someone has been spying on my sex life – and they might have been spying on yours too.  We-vibe created what looked to be an excellent entry in to the world of long distance relationships when they developed their we-vibe 4.  It is a vibrator designed to be controlled either by a remote, or by an app on your phone – or someone elses phone.  This means that you can enjoy genital sexytimes with someone a continent away.  Seemed like a great idea for someone like me with people on different landmasses that enjoy that kind of thing.  Unfortunately, it has been revealed, there was a catch.  The company was storing data on all kinds of things, and it didn’t tell users first.  A user alerted me to the settlement. They said,

“I feel violated.  I like public sex and I’m an exhibitionist, but I like to know it’s happening.” 

So, what are the problems? A couple of New Zealand based ‘hactivists’ argued that sex toy security is a serious issue.

“A lot of people in the past have said it’s not really a serious issue, but if you come back to the fact that we’re talking about people, unwanted activation of a vibrator is potentially sexual assault.”

The company was collecting data on temperature, usage and intensity of the device which gave them details of their users sex lives without informed consent.  They argued that the data was for diagnostic purposes, and to understand what settings and intensities are most enjoyed by customers.  The major problem for the company is that they didn’t inform users that they were collecting this data.  But should we be surprised? A Guardian commentator argued that given the hacks to date on other smart appliances, one for the vibrator was inevitable.  As if the information that the company has disclosed wasn’t creepy enough, some users have raised concerns that the app may have been sending more than just information on settings an intensities. The app permissions included access to the microphone and camera, location and even to read the contents of USB storage – giving the company a much wider picture of someone’s habits.

As a result of the data collection becoming public there was a class action lawsuit in Canada and a settlement has been reached of $4m Canadian dollars – separated into two pools of money.  One to compensate people who used the ap up to C$10,000 and one to compensate those who bought the product but did not connect it to a smart phone for up to C$199.  If you are affected by the issue you need to get the serial number of your device and you can find more information on the settlement here. Some UK suppliers say this ruling applies to devices bought in the USA, though as it is a Canadian ruing this appears unlikely. Time will tell whether or not UK users are able to make claims.

The expectation of privacy in relation to sex is pretty fundamental, but is also frequently violated.  Most people accept that if they live in a shared house, or even in a house with paper thin walls that they may be overheard.  We know revenge porn is a thing.  We know sometimes information about people’s sex lives is revealed when without their consent – particularly where the people are celebrities.  Within queer and kink communities there have occasionally been cases of ex partners exposing their proclivities to employers – one social worker was even dismissed as a result and won her resulting employment tribunal for unfair dismissal.  So, our sex lives can be made public, sometimes with serious consequences.  But this data collection is on a whole different scale.  It includes wide scale monitoring of the users of this product, which is unprecedented.  Since the hackers announced their findings in August, the company has changed its policy to inform users about what data will be kept on them, and have issued an updated security policy which you can find here. Does this go far enough? I don’t think so, and it is one app I will certainly be deleting from my phone.

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