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Maker Of Smart Vibrators To Pay $3.75 Million To Settle Privacy Lawsuit

Today's smart homes contain a variety of internet-connected appliances -- televisions, utility meters, hot water heaters, thermostats, refrigerators, security systems-- and devices you might not expect to have WiFi connections:  mouse traps, wine bottlescrock pots, toy dolls, and trash/recycle bins. Add smart vibrators to the list.

We-Vibe logo We-Vibe, a maker of vibrators for better sex, will pay U.S. $3.75 million to settle a class action lawsuit involving allegations that the company tracked users without their knowledge nor consent. The Guardian reported:

"Following a class-action lawsuit in an Illinois federal court, We-Vibe’s parent company Standard Innovation has been ordered to pay a total of C$4m to owners, with those who used the vibrators associated app entitled to the full amount each. Those who simply bought the vibrator can claim up to $199... the app came with a number of security and privacy vulnerabilities... The app that controls the vibrator is barely secured, allowing anyone within bluetooth range to seize control of the device. In addition, data is collected and sent back to Standard Innovation, letting the company know about the temperature of the device and the vibration intensity – which, combined, reveal intimate information about the user’s sexual habits..."

Image of We-Vibe 4 Plus product with phone. Click to view larger version We-Vibe's products are available online at the Canadian company's online store and at Amazon. This Youtube video (warning: not safe for work) promotes the company's devices. Consumers can use the smart vibrator with or without the mobile app on their smartphones. The app is available at both the Apple iTunes and Google Play online stores.

Like any other digital device, security matters. C/Net reported last summer:

"... two security researchers who go by the names followr and g0ldfisk found flaws in the software that controls the [We-Vibe 4Plus] device. It could potentially let a hacker take over the vibrator while it's in use. But that's -- at this point -- only theoretical. What the researchers found more concerning was the device's use of personal data. Standard Innovation collects information on the temperature of the device and the intensity at which it's vibrating, in real time, the researchers found..."

In the September 2016 complaint (Adobe PDF; 601 K bytes), the plaintiffs sought to stop Standard Innovation from "monitoring, collecting, and transmitting consumers’ usage information," collect damages due to the alleged unauthorized data collection and privacy violations, and reimburse users from their purchase of their We-Vibe devices (because a personal vibrator with this alleged data collection is worth less than a personal vibrator without data collection). That complaint alleged:

"Unbeknownst to its customers, however, Defendant designed We-Connect to (i) collect and record highly intimate and sensitive data regarding consumers’ personal We-Vibe use, including the date and time of each use and the selected vibration settings, and (ii) transmit such usage data — along with the user’s personal email address — to its servers in Canada... By design, the defining feature of the We-Vibe device is the ability to remotely control it through We-Connect. Defendant requires customers to use We-Connect to fully access the We-Vibe’s features and functions. Yet, Defendant fails to notify or warn customers that We-Connect monitors and records, in real time, how they use the device. Nor does Defendant disclose that it transmits the collected private usage information to its servers in Canada... Defendant programmed We-Connect to secretly collect intimate details about its customers’ use of the We-Vibe, including the date and time of each use, the vibration intensity level selected by the user, the vibration mode or patterns selected by the user, and incredibly, the email address of We-Vibe customers who had registered with the App, allowing Defendant to link the usage information to specific customer accounts... In addition, Defendant designed We-Connect to surreptitiously route information from the “connect lover” feature to its servers. For instance, when partners use the “connect lover” feature and one takes remote control of the We-Vibe device or sends a [text or video chat] communication, We-Connect causes all of the information to be routed to its servers, and then collects, at a minimum, certain information about the We-Vibe, including its temperature and battery life. That is, despite promising to create “a secure connection between your smartphones,” Defendant causes all communications to be routed through its servers..."

The We-Vibe Nova product page lists ten different vibration modes (e.g., Crest, Pulse, Wave, Echo, Cha-cha-cha, etc.), or users can create their own custom modes. The settlement agreement defined two groups of affected consumers:

"... the proposed Purchaser Class, consisting of: all individuals in the United States who purchased a Bluetooth-enabled We-Vibe Brand Product before September 26, 2016. As provided in the Settlement Agreement, “We-Vibe Brand Product” means the “We-Vibe® Classic; We-Vibe® 4 Plus; We-Vibe® 4 Plus App Only; Rave by We-VibeTM and Nova by We-VibeTM... the proposed App Class, consisting of: all individuals in the United States who downloaded the We-Connect application and used it to control a We-Vibe Brand Product before September 26, 2016."

According to the settlement agreement, affected users will be notified by e-mail addresses, with notices in the We-Connect mobile app, a settlement website (to be created), a "one-time half of a page summary publication notice in People Magazine and Sports Illustrated," and by online advertisements in several websites such as Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. The settlement site will likely specify additional information including any deadlines and additional notices.

We-Vibe announced in its blog on October 3, 2016 several security improvements:

"... we updated the We-ConnectTM app and our app privacy notice. That update includes: a) Enhanced communication regarding our privacy practices and data collection – in both the onboarding process and in the app settings; b) No registration or account creation. Customers do not provide their name, email or phone number or other identifying information to use We-Connect; c) An option for customers to opt-out of sharing anonymous app usage data is available in the We-Connect settings; d) A new plain language Privacy Notice outlines how we collect and use data for the app to function and to improve We-Vibe products."

I briefly reviewed the We-Connect App Privacy Policy (dated September 26, 2016) linked from the Google Play store. When buying digital products online, often the privacy policy for the mobile app is different than the privacy policy for the website. (Informed shoppers read both.) Some key sections from the app privacy policy:

"Collection And Use of Information: You can use We-Vibe products without the We-Connect app. No information related to your use of We-Vibe products is collected from you if you don’t install and use the app."

I don't have access to the prior version of the privacy policy. That last sentence seems clear and should be a huge warning to prospective users about the data collection. More from the policy:

"We collect and use information for the purposes identified below... To access and use certain We-Vibe product features, the We-Connect app must be installed on an iOS or Android enabled device and paired with a We-Vibe product. We do not ask you to provide your name, address or other personally identifying information as part of the We-Connect app installation process or otherwise... The first time you launch the We-Connect app, our servers will provide you with an anonymous token. The We-Connect app will use this anonymous token to facilitate connections and share control of your We-Vibe with your partner using the Connect Lover feature... certain limited data is required for the We-Connect app to function on your device. This data is collected in a way that does not personally identify individual We-Connect app users. This data includes the type of device hardware and operating system, unique device identifier, IP address, language settings, and the date and time the We-Connect app accesses our servers. We also collect certain information to facilitate the exchange of messages between you and your partner, and to enable you to adjust vibration controls. This data is also collected in a way that does not personally identify individual We-Connect app users."

In a way that does not personally identify individuals? What way? Is that the "anonymous token" or something else? More clarity seems necessary.

Consumers should read the app privacy policy and judge for themselves. Me? I am skeptical. Why? The "unique device identifier" can be used exactly for that... to identify a specific phone. The IP address associated with each mobile device can also be used to identify specific persons. Match either number to the user's 10-digit phone number (readily available on phones), and it seems that one can easily re-assemble anonymously collected data afterwards to make it user-specific.

And since partner(s) can remotely control a user's We-Vibe device, their information is collected, too. Persons with multiple partners (and/or multiple We-Vibe devices) should thoroughly consider the implications.

The About Us page in the We-Vibe site contains this company description:

"We-Vibe designs and manufactures world-leading couples and solo vibrators. Our world-class engineers and industrial designers work closely with sexual wellness experts, doctors and consumers to design and develop intimate products that work in sync with the human body. We use state-of-the-art techniques and tools to make sure our products set new industry standards for ergonomic design and high performance while remaining eco‑friendly and body-safe."

Hmmmm. No mentions of privacy nor security. Hopefully, a future About Us page revision will mention privacy and security. Hopefully, no government officials use these or other branded smart sex toys. This is exactly the type of data collection spies will use to embarrass and/or blackmail targets.

The settlement is a reminder that companies are willing, eager, and happy to exploit consumers' failure to read privacy policies. A study last year found that 74 percent of consumers surveyed never read privacy policies.

All of this should be a reminder to consumers that companies highly value the information they collect about their users, and generate additional revenue streams by selling information collected to corporate affiliates, advertisers, marketing partners, and/or data brokers. Consumers' smartphones are central to that data collection.

What are your opinions of the We-Vibe settlement? Of its products and security?

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