Mar 152017

We-Vibe Sync vibrator with gavel

It’s all over the news right now that We-Vibe is settling a lawsuit over their app-enabled vibrators, and naturally, everyone wants to know my opinion. (Thank you, by the way, for thinking of me whenever sex toys are in the news.) According to the plaintiffs, We-Vibe was collecting app usage data without their knowledge. One headline reads, alarmingly, We-Vibe vibrator creator to pay damages after spying on user sex lives.

Obviously, privacy and consent are important, but so is context. So, what kind of data was collected and how was it used? When the issue was brought to We-Vibe’s attention in September, they explained:

We do collect certain limited data to help us improve our products and for diagnostic purposes. As a matter of practice, we use this data in an aggregate, non-identifiable form. Processor chip temperature is used to help us determine whether device processors are operating correctly. And vibration intensity data is used for the purposes of helping us better understand how — in the aggregate — our product features are utilized.

They failed to disclose this to users. That’s it. This isn’t some nefarious scheme. Nobody’s email addresses or passwords were leaked. No bank accounts were hacked. No sensitive information was made public. Only We-Vibe had access to the data, and they then used it to… improve their products. I’m not saying it was okay for them to do this without telling us, or that consumers don’t have a right to be pissed. But is this worth boycotting an otherwise reputable company over? In my opinion, no.

We-Vibe has always been a stand-up company to me, so I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that I would not give to other companies. They updated the app immediately when the issue was brought to their attention. There is now no registration or account creation and an option for customers to opt out of sharing anonymous usage data. We-Vibe destroyed all the data previously collected, and they’re offering to pay consumers who were affected. They responded appropriately and learned their lesson.

I can’t help but feel like sex negativity had a role in this, though. When the initial news came out it was constantly presented in an inflammatory way by the media, as if sexual data is somehow more egregious to collect than ALL the other data ALL other apps collect. We opt in to (or don’t opt out of) so much shit on our phones, we give up our privacy all the time, but OH GOD! The privacy of THE BEDROOM!

I know, sex is a bristly subject for people. It’s sensitive and loaded, and should be handled as such. I sometimes forget that, living in a self-created sex-positive utopia where relaying all the juicy details of my masturbatory life to the internet is the norm. I forget that for some people, sex is so taboo that to have any information about their sex lives divulged — no matter the manner, amount, or recipient — is a violation. I think, perhaps, We-Vibe momentarily forgot that too. I can forgive them for that.

  • Rin

    It’s good to see that We-Vibe is handling the matter in a mature and sensible manner, rather than throwing up the shields like a lot of companies would be inclined to do. Even to the point of deleting all the data previously collected – an action that is detrimental to them – for the sake of their customers. THAT is a dedication to consumer well-being that is practically unheard-of from so many companies! Even if they did make kind of a big booboo initially, credit has to be given in light of the effort being made to make it right.

  • Susi El

    Apart from the collecting data without people’s consent the major
    problem was that they were basically able to tell the time, you’ve been
    masturbating, for how long and how. The idea of companies knowing things like that is already horrifying enough. Secondly the information was revealed by a second party, namely at hacker conference Defcon in Las Vegas by two security researchers, by @gOldfisk and @rancidbacon. If the app is accessible by others, the data can be of course sold to third parties… like your boss or your jealous husband who could monitor your masturbation behaviour with that.

    The third aspect is the production of vibration patterns. You can come up with vibration patters that work perfectly for you, that we vibe can record and later claim for themselves. They would therefore be stealing your intellectual property.

  • anon

    I think one thing worth repeating is a point Polly made on twitter: ” In some places it’s still illegal to buy/sell sex toys” So it’s not necessarily shame or sex-negativity of the user that might make them more concerned about that data being collected vs other data.

  • Naamah

    They should have disclosed and had an opt-out from the get-go.

    I’m hella sex-positive, but my sex life is still private in the sense that while I am generally happy to share information about it with total randos on the internet, I do have the right to be selective about how I share information, to whom, and how. Also, my girlfriend is a much more private person, so I have her limits to respect as well.

    I also have an intense personal squick, bordering on it being triggering, of people collecting data about my body. I have this due to prior abuse. It’s extremely invasive, and this grosses me out. I don’t expect people to automatically consider this angle, most people don’t have those issues, but they are still real issues, and I’m hardly alone. What I went through is shamefully common.

    I don’t doubt sex negativity had a role, it’s not the only reason to object to the collection of this sort of personal information.

    Our sex lives are immensely personal, many of us engage in activities that are still heavily stigmatized or even actively criminalized. I can understand being very protective of that information. Even if this particular set of data isn’t necessarily all that revealing, it pokes people in some tender places.

    ALL THAT SAID, I think that they responded really well. They can’t go back in time and make a better decision, so they did what they could, and IMO went a lot farther to try to right this than I would ever have expected. I’m with Rin. That’s dedication, and I give them credit for trying to fix it.

  • K. Scott

    I’m sofa king relieved with your response to this; rational and thoughtful. Kudos.

  • Aaron El Sabrout

    I think it’s inappropriate and a fallacy to assume that being private about your sex life = “sex negativity.” like … your opinion comes across somehow as judging people for being uncomfortable with finding out that their intensely personal (if anonymized) data was being shared which I think is neither right nor fair. people who have perfectly healthy and positive sex lives have really varying degrees of privacy around it and that’s okay and I think important.

    I think this is a problem I have with the “sex positive” movement in general to be honest. it’s perceived as if positive/healthy sexuality = public sexuality. there’s a huuuuge gap between being ashamed about your sexuality and being totally open with any- and every-body about it. collapsing those categories into a binary is just another way to pressure people into certain norms about sexuality. that’s not cool.

  • I never said that being private about sex is sex negativity. I said sex negativity has played a role in how this is being reported. Twice I explicitly stated that consumers have every right to be angry and feel violated. People who feel that way are not sex negative; they are living in a sex negative culture, as we all are, which contributes to the way this is being presented and understood. I even acknowledged at the end that I live in a bit of a bubble and have to actively remind myself of that. I’m not perfect, and I’m not flawlessly sex-positive, but I try.

  • KickFailure

    Nobody intentionally allows themselves to be hacked, but if they _have_ data, you have to assume they’re one careless employee away from _everyone_ having that data.

    It’s not a matter of “no matter the recipient” as though the angry customers are outraged that someone is compiling a spreadsheet, they’re angry because in this day and age, any data that exists is one careless mistake away from becoming becoming publicly available.

    You recall what happened when that adultery dating sight lost its database? Web pages were instantly set up where you could look up people’s emails and titter at their indiscretions. The same thing would have happened if this database had leaked. I promise you every female employee who works in a big office would have been looked up almost instantly.

    I think it’s pretty ok to be mad at a company that took that risk without telling anyone.

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  • Zeke Graysex

    Correct me if i’m misunderstanding something, but i think it was the internal temperature of the toy, not the body temperature of the user.
    It is a good point though and definitely contributes, in my opinion, to any uproar or icky feelings people might have surrounding this whole thing.

  • Zeke Graysex

    I don’t think you’re wrong about the sex negativity aspect. in fact i agree completely.
    and in regards to some other discussions happening here, i’d like to say that I’m as private about my sexual activity as i can be while still posting about it online; though there is a divide between that and my personal/at-home life. I still don’t feel like it was necessarily wrong of them to collect data especially because it was anonymous/used to improve their toys/etc, but i do agree that it should’ve been disclosed to users beforehand.I’m just totally not surprised or even phased that data was being collected…from an app…with users. There’s so much more violating data collection going on, in my opinion, on things like google and facebook. I don’t own a we-vibe yet but this hasn’t stopped me from wanting one in the least and i especially admire how they’ve handled the whole thing. they’re a great example of how a company should react/behave, in more instances than just this one.

  • Also, let’s be real: All apps have this potential and a whole bunch are probably doing it without your consent. There would not be this big “OMG!!” kerfluffle if Candy Crush were at the center of this case. It’s been made into a huge thing because, you know, the sex.

    Re: sex negative/sex positive and the problems with both. Generally I’m out of patience with people making sex a big huge deal either way. Both extremes have officially bored me to death. Whether it’s “look how positive I am and and how much sex I have!!!” or “Shhh, not sex!” I’m rolling my eyes at you.

  • To be clear, I feel for the people who feel violated by the whole thing. That’s a horrible feeling but the media portrayal of “evil sex toy company sexually spying in sexual ways sex sex sex sex” is absurd.

  • I’m not so sure intellectual property law applies here. One could potentially make the argument for “trade secrets” but there’s not really precedent there as end users are not a commerce entity. Just, let’s not add accusations of crimes which do not/might not exist into the matter.

  • This is correct. The temperature reading was that of the internal workings, most likely as a means of testing motor stress and how hard the motor was working (moving parts -> friction -> byproduct heat)

  • Yes, according to multiple sources it was the temperature of the toy (the temperature of the processor chip) that was being collected, probably to make sure the toy wasn’t overheating.

  • I like to ask myself sometimes “would this be a big deal if it was about farts?” and if the answer is no, it’s probably sex-negativity. But then again I’ll find a way to make anything be about butts and farts, because I’m me.

  • The sex-negativity proof is in the pudding with this one- no one remembers when iHandy got in trouble for accessing customer data (location, contacts, etc.) via their flashlight app. In that case it was even more warranted (imo) to be upset because flashlight has zero need for my contacts.

    They were the largest flashlight, compass, and level app makers at the time, a time before phones came default with these features, and still most folks don’t even know the issue happened. The headlines were remarkably demure in comparison, and also remarkably few.

  • Zeke Graysex

    Yeah, that’s what i thought. I’d be extremely surprised if a sex toy was capable of not only reading body temperature, but of storing and distributing such information as well…well, less surprise that a toy would be capable of such thing, but that a company would even want to do that??

  • Zeke Graysex

    that just don’t seem right. monitoring computer temperature, however, is something every phone, computer, tablet, etc does every time you use it.

  • AceDenise

    I thought the sex-negativity was a factor in the reporting of this too- I cringed at all the click-baity headlines about the story when the story itself was not really that exciting. But a headline screaming “Evil sex toy company spying on users in the bedroom!!” gets lots of hits. For myself, I can make anonymous comments on the internet all the time about my masturbation and toys that I use, but in real life I don’t talk about it to anyone, I would only do that with someone I really trusted who maybe is into similar things. I’m told I blush sometimes when sex is brought up in conversation, but I’m not embarrassed- I’m so pale white I’m practically translucent, it’s an involuntary capillary response, dammit! But if I don’t know for sure how sex-positive the audience is I won’t breathe a word of what I do myself. As an asexual, the sex-positivity movement to me seems more about everyone having a CHOICE about what sex they engage in, public, private, or whatever else. Or for me, none. I don’t really see an emphasis on “public” sex in particular now, except being on the internet of course. Personally, I’m more concerned when I see anyone pushing sex-positivity as “all sex is always good, all the time, no matter what” while ignoring things like safety and painting anyone who exercises their choice to say “no thanks” as being “sex-negative”.

  • aerynsun21

    When I first heard about the settlement, my initial reaction was “what a violation of privacy!” I feel like my initial reaction was due to the sex negative way the story was reported. When I actually thought about what “data” We-VIbe was collecting, it didn’t bother me at all. So they will basically know when it was turned on, if you used the app remotely, how long the app/vibe was used, the internal temperature of the device (not the user’s body temp which I feel like is being falsely reported), etc. It’s not like they will know if you applied it to your genitals or to someone else’s genitals or who you used it with or how many people you used it with or any of the specifics really. They will basically know you own it and you turned it on.

    I suppose someone could hack this information and link it to you via your e-mail and make assumptions about how you used the vibe. This seems kinda far fetched, but even if they did all they would find out is you had sex either with yourself or some else. Sure this information is private, but it’s also not really a source of embarrassment any more than someone knowing that you have normal bodily functions. (I know some people have pointed out this could harm people who live in areas where there are laws against sex toys and other sexual behaviors, I would contend the laws are the problem honestly, however, generally those laws regulate the purchase of sex toys which could be linked to them even without this app.)

    Of course they should have been upfront and allowed an opt-out right away, but lots of apps do this all the time without us caring or thinking about it twice and it was a mistake they have corrected at this point. Plus they make great products, and improve those products in logic ways based in large part on feedback from their customers.

  • Zeke Graysex

    I agree 100% with your entire last paragraph especially

  • jane

    The point is still: Products are collecting data, when you don’t expect them to. If its your fridge, your vibrator or your lava lamp, its wrong. This has not much to do with sex positivity/negativity. And that there is no leak, doesn’t mean the data isn’t at danger. Maybe it’s leaking tomorrow. There is a concept like data minimization. If some stupid account requires your real name: lie. Use tenminutemail. Make up your age. So nothing against the product, but something about collecting data.

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  • billkou

    It’s not about taboo. It’s about being the product. Same with faceboo, twitter and all the social media platforms. They’re harvesting information so they can create a pattern of your habbits and then profit from them.

    We-Vibe is despicable for doing so, and it’s nothing to about negativity or anything like that. Just because you, me and everyone else likes to do whatever we want with sex toys, doesn’t mean that we should be monitored while doing it.

    Your argument is like “I don’t care if they spy on me because I have nothing to hide” and this is utterly wrong. It’s like saying “Just because I don’t have anything to say, I can keep my mouth shut”. It doesn’t work like this.

    I don’t believe they destroyed the data and I don’t believe this was unintentional. We’re in the age of information and everyone is trying to have a target group to market/sell their products/services on.

    And just because the company deals with it in a “professional” way doesn’t mean anything to me actually, because such an issue shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

  • Aaron El Sabrout

    I just think sex-negativity as like a concept is something that is overblown in like certain online circles and I think doesn’t really exist as like an independent entity. I think that we can talk seriously about misogyny and queer- and trans-antagonism as serious issues that play into discussions about sex but to take seriously the idea that “sex negativity” is like a thing is to me just absurd. Especially in this kind of context. Like yeah! of course people are private about sex most of the time! it’s a weird and strange thing that humans do that like we love to do and is fun but is super awkward. and like I think most of the people in comments below being like “people wouldn’t be weirded out if this was about farts or candy crush or whatever” are missing the point like. first of all I would be very disturbed if an app was sharing info about my farts. but also like sex is intimate and personal and bodily in a way that a lot of things aren’t (like say candy crush) and I think to pretend otherwise is silly.

    and yeah like I guess all of this is to say that like even though you said those things in your post above like your tone came off as dismissive and now I feel like your tone is defensive and like I just think like … I get that as a job u talk publicly about your sex stuff so you might not relate to why that would make some people uncomfortable but like. most people do regard sex as Something Else and that’s not like some oppressive conspiracy (though as I said there are often heteropatriarchal implications), and to say that there is such a thing as “sex negativity” or whatever just seems very out of touch with the real world.

  • Re: sex negativity- the headlines regarding this matter have been playing up the “SPYING ON SEX LIVES” angle. This is designed to evoke the imagery of hidden cameras and peeping toms. This IS NOT WHAT HAPPENED. WeVibe was not “spying on your sex life”. What they were doing is collecting device performance and app usage information. While this should have been disclosed AND EVERYONE AGREES WITH THAT, INCLUDING WEVIBE, this is not “spying” on anyone’s sex life. To imply that it is is directly playing into the societal sex taboos. Yes, people view sex as Something Else but if you actually do a deep dive into the reason behind it guess what you find? That is sex negativity- the making of a normal part of human life (sex) into a taboo.

    Does the term “sex negativity” get overused in places where it ought not? Yes. But that’s not the discussion here.

    Re: the fart comment- I meant a fart-relevant app/device.

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