A sex toy that links up with a smartphone app may be innovative, but the makers of popular app-enabled vibrator We-Vibe might have just stumbled upon a critical issue: One woman in Chicago is suing We-Vibe’s manufacturer, Standard Innovation, for collecting and transmitting her information, including her email address and the vibration settings she used, without her consent.
In the suit, which Refinery29 has obtained, a woman identified as “N.P.” says that she bought the We-Vibe toy in May and used it “several times” before finding out that it was sending her information back to Standard Innovation’s servers. The toy, which allows consumers to personalize their experience by playing around with vibration settings on the corresponding We-Connect app, also comes with a feature with which you can connect the toy to another person’s smartphone app and allow them to take the reins. It’s able to do so, of course, by sending information, but the lawsuit says that in facilitating what is meant to be a “secure connection,” the company also “causes all communications to be routed through its servers.”
The suit also says that the company never got consent from its users before “intercepting, monitoring, collecting, and transmitting their Usage Information.” On the contrary, it says, the company concealed its collection policies and intruded upon its users’ privacy, which the lawsuit alleges is a violation of the Wiretap Act (a law that makes it illegal to intercept or use electronic communication).
N.P. now wants to forbid the company from continuing to monitor its users and obtain information without their permission. She also wants the company to destroy all the information that it has already collected.
Just last month, two researchers revealed at Defcon, an annual hacking event, that they discovered “security flaws” in the We-Vibe and its app, which theoretically even makes it possible for someone to hack into the toy and control it remotely. However, it’s unclear if this is how N.P. found out about the security breach.
In a statement to Refinery29, We-Vibe says that, at this time, the company hasn’t actually been served with a lawsuit yet, and therefore can’t comment on “rumor or speculation.” However, it said, “there’s been no allegation that any of our customers’ data has been compromised.”
“Over the course of the last few weeks, we have taken steps to further enhance the data security and privacy measures for our product offering,” the statement reads. “We are also committed to better communicating our data practices. We are updating the We-Connect app later this month, and the update will include new in-app communication regarding our privacy and data practices and a new feature for consumers to control how their data may be used.”
It’s not surprising that N.P. wasn’t too pleased after finding out that her information was being recorded and used, and she’s not alone.
“If my orgasms were being tracked by an app, that’s something I’d want to know,” Lynn Comella, Ph.D., an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, tells Refinery29. “We-Vibe most certainly had a responsibility to its customers to disclose that information upfront and to give users the option to opt out of their marketing research. To me, that’s simple business ethics 101, and I can certainly understand why users might be upset to learn about this after-the-fact.”
“It also makes me wonder how many other sex-toy companies might be tracking user preferences without their knowledge,” she added. “My hope is that this is an isolated case. If it’s not, I hope companies update how they communicate their data practices to consumers.”
Of course, companies’ ability to collect user information to store and sell is nothing new, nor is the question of the ethics surrounding those capabilities. But it’s definitely something to think about the next time you’re purchasing an app-powered sex toy.
As Dr. Comella says, “When it comes to anything regarding sex, consent is essential.”