Your Vibrator Is a Spy

by Cameron Glover

Sextech is a rising industry with a major privacy problem. Smart sex toys might provide new tools for pleasure—and they might subject our intimate lives to new forms of surveillance.

We-Vibe iPhone app and vibrator

Technology has already transformed so many aspects of our lives. Now it’s begun to transform our sex lives, through the emerging field of “sextech.” What is sextech? In short: it’s an industry that merges human sexuality and technology. Sextech enterpreneur Cindy Gallup describes it this way:

Sextech is important because sex and sexuality lie at the heart of everything we are and everything we do… No other area of human existence is hedged around with so much shame, embarrassment, guilt and self-torment. How fundamentally important sexuality is to us, combined with how fundamentally conflicted we are about it, makes it the richest possible territory for advances and breakthroughs using technology to disrupt and enhance our experience of sex.

For Gallop, sexuality is especially fertile ground for technological disruption because of our “conflicted attitude” towards it. Sexuality “informs our relationships, our lives, our happiness”—yet our culture continues to have a tormented relationship with it. Gallop believes that technology can help resolve this conflict, and empower us to “openly discuss, address, solve for and improve sexual issues.”

Certainly, the need for a less tortured approach to sexuality is especially urgent now. The “shame, embarrassment, guilt and self-torment” that Gallup describes has only intensified in recent years, as conservatives continue their anti-sex crusade. We’re seeing more pushback against inclusive, comprehensive, and pleasure-based sexual education for school-aged children and adults, in favor of abstinence-only curricula that barely begin to scratch the surface of what individuals really want to know about sexuality. Consent, communication, and relationship-building skills are crucial parts of sex education, but are often overlooked.

Sextech may help solve the sex-ed crisis, but its possible applications are much broader. Exploring human sexuality through technology can take a variety of forms, from developing apps for ovulation tracking to adding digital features to sex toys in order to increase pleasure and create stronger connections for long-term (and long-distance) romantic partners. Indeed, part of what makes sextech so interesting is its almost limitless potential. Gallop calls sex “the universal human use-case,” and claims that sextech could be “the biggest technology market of them all, and therefore potentially far and away the most lucrative.” Sextech is the perfect business, in other words—as infinite, innovative, and inexhaustible as human sexuality itself.

Dangerous dongs

But as sextech grows in popularity, so does the need for consumers to be aware of its potential dangers. After all, sextech involves fusing technology with the most intimate parts of people’s lives—abuse and exploitation are real concerns. And sextech is still such a new field that there are few regulations or guidelines for the industry to follow.

In fact, the industry is currently reaching a critical moment over rising concern about encryption. Encryption can apply in two situations. The first is when a user accesses something passive, like porn. The second is when two or more people are having an interaction—either virtual or physical—that they don’t want to be observed by others. In either case, encryption is an important consideration, since sextech can generate sensitive data about users’ sexuality that they will want to protect. This data may be vulnerable to corporate or government surveillance, as well as to capture by malicious actors who want to pursue blackmail or “revenge porn”-style retribution.

The biggest sextech scandal to date came in 2016, when users of the We-Vibe, a Bluetooth-enabled vibrator, filed a lawsuit alleging that the device was collecting extensive amounts of usage data. This data included how often users used the We-Vibe and for how long, as well as the vibrator’s settings, temperature, and battery life. Further, the lawsuit claimed that the company was personalizing the information by linking it to customer email addresses. According to the lawsuit, We-Vibe’s parent company, Standard Innovation, obtained this information without users’ permission, in violation of the law. In March 2017, the makers of the We-Vibe reached a $3.75 million class action settlement with users.

The controversy has sparked a much-needed conversation about the need for encryption in sextech, and for greater consumer awareness more broadly. In the absence of government regulation or a single industry standard, the burden of keeping sextech data safe currently falls on the shoulders of consumers themselves. So how can consumers use encryption to protect themselves and their vulnerable data?

For Kyle Machulis, an encryption specialist for sextech products, the issue with sextech and encryption is that the two are often at odds with each other. “It’s much like creating the framework without addressing the current needs,” he says. Sextech is designed to allow individuals to experience sexual pleasure digitally—and safety is largely an afterthought.

“RenderMan” is the founder of Internet Of Dongs, a site devoted to “hacking” sextech devices and documenting their security vulnerabilities. He believes that sextech and encryption should be synonymous. “People [do] expect a certain level of privacy using these products,” he says. Unfortunately, both he and Machulis agree that there aren’t many steps that consumers can take to protect their privacy at this point. Instead, they suggest that consumers become more aware of how to safeguard their data online generally—and try to apply those lessons to sextech.

“Consumers should be thinking about what info is being generated and sent, and ask yourself if you’re comfortable with it,” RenderMan says. Machulis advises a similar approach: “Anytime anything is sent over a network, it can be compromised. Ask yourself, ‘Would I be okay with losing this information?’” He also advises “investing in products that have been verified safely.” Internet of Dongs is an essential resource for evaluating the safety of sextech products—“really the first in the field trying to bring out the best for sex tech consumers,” says Machulis. “Hopefully, companies and vendors begin to take note and follow suit.”

Without pressure from consumers, it’s unlikely that sextech companies will invest in the expertise needed to secure their products. They’re certainly not doing it now. “They don’t have anyone knowledgeable on staff as far as I can tell at most vendors,” RenderMan observes. More broadly, the engineering practices of sextech remain fairly opaque: even the question of “what coding language is being used” is a tricky one to answer, notes RenderMan.

We still have much to learn about what sextech is capable of, but one thing is certain: consumer safety is crucial. If sextech is to fulfill its potential, it has to gain our trust by ensuring the privacy of our digital sex lives.

Cameron Glover is a sexuality educator and freelance writer living near New York City. Her work on sex, tech, and culture can be found in publications such as Think Progress, Extra Crispy, and Wear Your Voice Mag*, just to name a few.*


This piece appears in Logic's second issue, Sex. To order the issue, head on over to our store—or better yet, subscribe!


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