I think we can agree: sex toys are great. But high-tech toys that record data and can leave you vulnerable to surveillance and intrusion? There’s nothing safe, sexy, or smart about that.
Look, I confess I’m a SciFi fan and the promise of high-tech sex is pretty hot. If we must throw ourselves toward a techno-dystopian future, it may as well be a spicy one that includes intelligent toys that learn and adapt to our bodies and desires. But invasive technology is a huge turn-off. So before you rush out to buy the latest internet-connected sex toy, let me take you through some of the privacy and security issues and then you can make an informed decision. We’re all about meaningful consent in this house, babe.
The “Internet of Things” is well known to be a privacy and security hellscape. Smart devices collect immense amounts of information about us, often with terrible security protections and minimal assurance that it won’t be sold or shared with police or other third parties. Smart speakers are a common example, and they do raise plenty of privacy concerns. But I’m not about to put one of those inside me and I’d suggest you don’t either. It should go without saying that the data smart sex toys can collect is particuarly sensitive.
So what makes a sex toy “smart”? Rather than your regular ol’ vibrator or strap-on, smart toys include features like Bluetooth or WiFi, remote control, mobile apps, and interactive long-distance syncing. Some even claim they use AI, like this vibrator that allows you to track your orgasms through sensors that measure movement in your vaginal or anal muscles, or this device that boasts the “perfect blowjob” thanks to its machine learning algorithm ingesting thousands of hours worth of porn.
The possiblity of what we might learn about human sexuality from data collected by sex toys is exciting. Dr Zahra Stardust, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at QUT’s Centre for Automated Decision-Making and Society, says that sextech can play an important role in improving sexual and reproductive health, pleasure and wellbeing.
“On an individual level, built-in sensors and real-time data can make devices more responsive and personalised, which can help people to track their sexual experiences and understand their bodies. Smart sex toys can connect people across borders and time zones to support long-distance intimacy,” she said.
But Dr Stardust also warns that “as users, we ought to be savvy to how our digital sexual footprints are being pieced together.”
The information collected via smart sex toys can amount to a kind of sexual surveillance. It may include masturbation habits like how often, when, where, and how long you’re using it, which settings you like (I mean who is using the morse code vibe, anyway?), and details about what your body is doing when you cum. Maybe I’m a prude, but when I’m having a cheeky mazz I want to know that all the gory details are going to stay between me and whoever else I’ve invited to the party.
This kind of information can paint a detailed picture of a person’s sex life and if it’s not kept safe it could place users at risk of stigma and blackmail. Let’s also keep in mind that in many places around the world it’s illegal to even buy sex toys and people can be arrested or killed for being queer. Companies tracking people’s sexual habits without their consent has even resulted in class action lawsuits, like this one against We-Vibe, and an ongoing one against Lovense.
Then there’s the possibility of people hacking in to watch, listen or even take control of the toy, which in the sextech world has the unfortunate name of “screwdriving”.
Hearing of a security flaw in an internet-enabled chastity device that would allow hackers to lock up the wearer’s genitals might seem pretty ridiculous or even funny, but the reality is really dangerous. Many are beginning to consider the sexual assualt implications of an unwanted third party hiijacking a sex toy. For example, this vibrator with a camera on the end was found to be easily hackable, and sparked discussions about the possibility of tech-facilitated rape.
But it isn’t all bad news. There’s growing awareness of the need for improved privacy and security in the sextech industry, especially thanks to advocates such as the security researchers behind the Internet of Dongs Project. Closer to home, researchers including Dr Stardust are exploring how collective design and accountable data governance can lead to ethical sextech. If you’re in Australia, you can even attend a Sextech Hackathon and get involved.
One thing’s for sure: safe sex of the future needs good data protection. Until that becomes the norm, I’ll be keeping my sex toys off the internet.
Samantha Floreani is a digital rights activist and writer.