The Brave New World Of High-Tech Sex Toys

From long-distance pleasuring to hands-on stimulators, the 21st century adult toys market offers plenty of exciting options. Just don't get hacked.

Working on an AI-powered sex doll in Barcelona
Working on an AI-powered sex doll in Barcelona
Penélope Canonico and Hernán Mármol

BUENOS AIRES — The choice of sex toys seems boundless these days, and Christian Milosevic, for one, isn't surprised.

"Sexuality is part of our biological health," explains the owner of a sex shop on the corner of Malabia and Corrientes streets, in Buenos Aires. "The toys bring new possibilities, sensations and can even be therapeutic."

There are the classic items, of course. The vibrators and dildos, lubricant gels with cooling or heating effects, lingerie, vacuum pumps and penis rings, all of which are still favorites in Argentina, including among millennials, and even seem to be growing in popularity, according to the online sales platform Mercado Libre. Purchases were up 124% last October compared to same month the previous year.

But the market also has a soft spot for innovation, including items that incorporate digital technology. There are even devices — like the many different Satisfyer brand genital stimulators — that can be recharged in a USB port.

"The goal is to live your sex life to the fullest, without prejudices," says Milosevic, who has more than 16 years experience in the trade. "I think the few taboos still left today have to do with ignorance."

Milosevic says he is trained to advise customers before selling a product. Paola Kulliok, a sexologist who leads guided tours of sex shops, agrees that the trick is for customers to really consider their specific needs and desires.

"It's not about buying something flashy," she says. "Maybe what I need is something that doesn't make noise, so I don't wake up my children, or that vibrates at different speeds and allows me to play with my partner at a distance."

The emphasis with some of the new products is on function rather than size.

Kulliok says that as a guide, he job is to make people feel that "it's natural" to use toys. "I show specific games and indicate the safety rules."

Experts say that while digital toys aren't replacing traditional products made in Argentina, they are helping boost overall consumption. Right now, remote-controlled items are trending: items that can be operated with a smartphone, using Bluetooth technology. Apps for such products can cost anywhere between 70 and 200 euros, and the purchase price includes downloading.

"Your partner stimulates you from somewhere else. It doesn't matter how far," says Kulliok. "He controls the vibration. He can be in Punta del Este and pleasure you in Buenos Aires. But if you're just starting in this world, I'd recommend first using other types of articles," she adds.

Psychiatrist and sexologist Walter Ghedin says that as alternatives to the traditional vibrator or dildo, the emphasis with some of the new products is on function rather than size. They can appeal specifically, he says, "to women who are after a particular level of pleasure." Men, on the hand, "prefer synthetic vaginas or being penetrated by more phallic objects," the expert adds.

Ghedin says cyber-sex, where couples each do his or her thing in front of their individual screens, is also spreading.

Buyers beware

But while there can certainly be benefits to such devices, there is also a potential danger: hacking. That's particularly true of items in the world of the Internet of Things (IoT) that use the Bluetooth low energy protocol.

"In any phase, a cybercriminal could intervene or interrupt the process to steal data or take control of the device," says Denise Giusto Bilic, an IT specialist. She says the devices "are constantly publishing information that can have serious consequences in the hands of criminals. Data range from the form and duration of use to measuring temperature."

They can also permit transfer of pictures that will never be deleted, as with the Lovense Max 2 male masturbator. And while these do not divulge metada (data about data), the images enter the Google photo application, which a cybercriminal can access.

How can a hacker directly enter such devices? Online security specialists from ESET say anyone could find the accessories by scanning the web, and that many of the toys — an infamous example being the female We-Vibe 4 Plus from Canada — offer no information on protection of user data.

The new vibrators and masturbators are constantly seeking connections, and stop when they find one. If the user puts his or her cellphone on standby, the connection is freed and a Bluetooth scanner can detect if there is a device looking to be connected. Through the Bluetooth website, it can divert the user's connection away from the sex device. Viruses can allow an intruder to control these toys at a distance, or steal private or sensitive information from the user, which might lead to ransom demands to be paid by cryptocurrency.

At the 2016 Las Vegas Def Con Hacking Conference, a pair of independent hackers from New Zealand known as "GoldFisk" and "Users' revealed there was no security in the communications between the We-Vibe 4 Plus vibrator and its application, and that the vibrator can thus be seized and activated remotely. That led to a customer class action against the Canadian manufacturers that resulted in payment of damages totaling U.S. $4 million.

The firm changed its privacy policy as a result, and began using token devices like those used by bank customers. This allowed one-time connections per use that protected against brute-forcing.

Toys as liberators

In addition to her sex-shop tours, Paola Kulliok also gives no-holds-barred sex talks on cruises. And one of the things she discusses is how ashamed and fearful people are when it comes to sexuality.

Sex toys are bridging the gap between cultural patterns and sexual freedom.

María Marta Castro Martín, a sex education teacher who says she obtains an evolving picture of sexual mores from private patients or pupils, agrees. Members of a Whatsapp group she coordinates admitted it was not easy to walk into a sex shop. One member, O, wrote: "The problem is how other people look at you." But Castro Martín also finds that women are a bit more adventurous in such circumstances.

"Women have taken over their own sexuality, and pleasure and preferences," says Christian Milosevic. "And the market has accompanied them in this change."

Castro Martín notes that in some small towns in Argentina where there are no sex shops, people organize "tuppersex" gatherings (where items are sold). "We're still very binary in these, with girls on one side and boys on the other," she says.

Walter Ghedin says sex toys are bridging the gap between "cultural patterns and sexual freedom" and help free couples from certain sex patterns. The first vibrators, he says, would reproduce the organs of porn actors within the "stereotype of the active man who dominates the passive woman." That vision gave way to new ways of seeing the encounter.

"While we still have sexual products that reproduce the patriarchal vision, the new objects are focused on obtaining and giving pleasure," he says.

Today, there are sex shops for women alone, and sex objects are not necessarily phallic. As Castro Martín says: "Each person must do what they feel like doing." Sex toys are another means, in that sense, of freely expressing sexuality, without submission to the socio-cultural norms.

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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