Ida Aalen

@idaaa

How Internet-connected sex toys make it clear that we need to worry about the Internet of Things

“Become an expert in your own sexuality in 3 steps”, is how the Lioness vibrator is pitched. But where might your data end up?

The Internet-connected fridge is the typical example of mundane technology that might soon be online. Getting sex toys online makes the problematic sides of IoT more evident.

In plain English, the Internet of Things (IoT), means that our things will be connected to the Internet. In its 2017 hype cycle analysis, Gartner estimated that IoT would reach most people within two to five years.

Until now, IoT has primarily been embraced by the keenest nerds. There are Internet-connected light bulbs, door locks, heaters, coffee makers, bathroom scales, robot vacuum cleaners and burglary alarms. But since IoT devices are often pricier than their unconnected competitors, they won’t reach the mainstream until people who aren’t as tech-savvy find the IoT devices superior.

Sometimes the spread of technology needs help from our more basic urges.

The cliché of porn spreading technology

The story of how human desires in general, and the porn industry in particular, has contributed to the spread of new technologies has become a cliché: Super 8 cameras enabled amateur porn. With Polaroid cameras, you could take daring photos without fearing the development process. The porn industry chose the cheaper VHS format over Betamax and has been pushing for pay per view-solutions and innovations in online payment.

The porn industry didn’t invent these technologies but have often found uses that had a broader appeal than technology just for technology’s sake.

Sex + IoT = ?

If you were already wondering why your coffee machine should be online, you might be asking the same question about sex toys.

There are sex-related IoT-gadgets that have nothing to do with porn. The kGoal helps women do Kegel exercises correctly. The gadget is inserted into the vagina and provides feedback on the way you do the exercises. The vibrator Lioness collects data on the use and orgasms, to help the owner figure out what affects her desire and orgasms.

So many iPhones next so to many sex devices. This is kGoal.

Sex toy producers that are directing themselves towards the general market package their sales pitch into a romantic tale of the long-distance relationship. Wouldn’t it be delightful, if your partner could control your toy from the other side of the planet? Remotely controlled vibrators have been around for a while, but there are also paired vibrators and artificial vaginas (“Fleshlights”) that can be used simultaneously and send signals to each other, mutually controlling each other’s movements.

Enter porn industry

The use of pair sex toys quickly moved outside the romantic spheres, as camgirls and camboys began using them. As long as webcams have been around, people have been doing more or less explicit things on camera. Around the world, you’ll find people who do webcam shows for a living, in a digital gray area between striptease, pornography, and prostitution.

Viewers can chat with performers and tip them. For a certain tip, you get to see this or that action. The prices, however, are being pushed down. With the Internet-connected sex toys, camgirls and camboys could offer their viewers to control the sex toys at a distance, and for a short while stand out from the crowd.

The porn industry has also found its twist on IoT. Artificial vaginas (“fleshlights”) are connected to a small robot which moves vagina up and down. When the vagina robot is put online, the movement can be synchronized with the movements you see in the porn movie. Some porn movies are shot specifically for this purpose, often in first person POV. Combined with virtual reality glasses, the porn industry hopes to create porn that is immersive enough that people will bother to pay for it.

(Staying clear of the porn industry, you could go for the vibrator Vibease, which synchronizes its movements with audiobook porn.)

What happens when your device gets hacked?

IoT-gadgets has a lot of problematic aspects, but with the sex involved, the problematic aspects become more evident. Everything that is connected to the Internet can be hacked. How would you feel if it’s not your girlfriend that is remotely controlling the sex toy, but someone else, that has hacked into it? Or what if someone would get the hold of the audio and video broadcasted from the sex toy? (Yep, there are vibrators with integrated camera).

There are a number examples of how sex toys have been hacked. Last year Standard Innovation had to pay plaintiffs 3.75 million US dollars after it became clear that their We-Vibe vibrator could be hacked, and was sending data about temperature and vibration settings back to the company’s servers. In other words, it was possible to glean when and how the vibrator was used.

You don’t really own your IoT device

Secondly, it is unclear what you are really buying when you buy an IoT device. Even if you have paid hundreds of dollars, you don’t get to decide precisely how it can be used or how the data will be used. The manufacturer may send software updates that change functionality.

When people are just paying once, instead of subscribing to a service, how will they be able to fund running costs and further development? When the company goes bankrupt, will your vibrator (or fridge, or light bulb) stop working? Additionally, if the business model isn’t that solid, but the gadget has access to a lot of data, it may be tempting to sell the data or at least the analysis of the data. IoT isn’t explicitly held to any legal requirements or standards.

Taking control of the devices — in a good way

Luckily, the Internet is big enough that there are of course people that are working to take bring our sex toys back! Around the world, there have been several sex hackathons (which are far more innocent than the name would suggest). Enthusiasts from different fields put together and use technology to build gadgets that can solve needs linked to intimacy and sexuality in new ways. With the programming framework buttplug.io, it becomes easier for people to take control of their sex toys, and reprogram them to work in new ways.

Make sure to check out the suggested principles for IoT.

There’s also a movement fighting for better regulation of IoT. Designer and IoT enthusiast Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino was in Oslo last fall and gave an eye-opening talk on the topic. Their goal is to get manufacturers to follow 30 principles covering issues such as privacy, security, open source and the possibility to manage and control a gadget you have purchased.

Here in Norway, the Norwegian Consumer Council has done an exemplary with their critique of IoT, shedding light on fitness bracelets and internet-connected children’s toys.

In other words, the technology is ready, use cases are increasing, but the safety and regulation are not in place. I’ll be passing on IoT devices for few more years.

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