Sex and technology both raise challenging questions about privacy and personal autonomy, and the magnitude of these challenges only increases when the two intersect. Last week, for instance, British Condoms announced the world’s first “smart condom.” The i.Con Smart Condom is a wearable ring that promises to track sexual performance and potentially detect sexually transmitted infections.
The privacy risks are easy enough to identify. British Condoms has explained that “all data will be kept anonymous, but users will have the option to share their recent data with friends, or, indeed the world.” Declaring information to be anonymous and ensuring that it actually is remains challenging. Without delving into debates around what it means for a dataset to be truly de-identified, it seems reasonable to ascertain that some of this highly sensitive information will be linked to identified users. How else could they share their data with “indeed the world”? It’s also likely that if users are being encouraged to share their data that there’s a marketing component built into British Condoms’ product. Information about sexual performance and disease have been recognized by the Network Advertising Initiative as some of the most sensitive information available, meaning any use of that data for marketing requires opt-in consent.
But the nuts and bolts of privacy compliance and data protection ignore a larger issue at play here: the fact that many of these apps and technologies are specifically focused on placing women into a position of being monitored and dominated. Karen Levy has done considerable research on what she terms “intimate surveillance,” exploring how digital technologies are changing longstanding norms in the bedroom and the ways in which these technologies reflect a male bias.
The iCon is just the latest example of a wearable that appeals to the baser desires of men. For instance, the product description references the ability to track how many positions have been “conquered.” It essentially gamifies sex, and while that needn’t be a bad thing, the i.Con portrays sexuality exclusively from a male’s perspective. This seems especially important to consider given today’s “Day Without a Woman,” where CDT coincidentally finds itself under(wo)manned. I find myself not in the best position to ask my female colleagues what their thoughts are, and I have to wonder whether British Condoms did any focus testing using women.
One of the goals of so much of the activity around gender equality this year has been to address the constant awarding of power, agency, and resources to masculinity. And yet that seems to be the i.Con’s reason for being. I hope that changes for not just smart condoms but for sexual wearables in general.