The US Government Wants to Know If You Buy a Dildo Online

Thanks to a long-running legal case, online retailers will now have to disclose their customers' purchases to certain state governments. Privacy campaigners are outraged.

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Dec 15 2016, 1:34pm

Photo by W2 Photography via Stocksy

Buy a dildo, butt plug, or—god forbid—a strap-on online and the government will know about it. That is, if you're unlucky enough to live in one of the US states subject to a new reporting requirement on online purchasing.

Several states, including Colorado, Vermont, Alabama, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Tennessee are in the process of introducing so-called tattletale reporting laws that require online and catalog (remember those?) retailers to report personal information and purchase data to state officials. What it all comes down to is money: State authorities want to recoup sales tax on purchases from retailers not physically based in the state.

The Register reports that the new reporting requirements are the result of a long-running legal case that the US Supreme Court declined to hear earlier this week. As a result, an existing 10th Circuit ruling that upholds Colorado's remote seller reporting requirements stands.

While the ruling may sound innocuous, what this means in practice is that full details of any online purchases made in these state would become known to your local legislature. This could include anything from sex toys, packers for trans men, and political or religious books. When you consider the president-elect's attitude towards Muslims or transphobic "bathroom bills", many minority groups may now have to think twice about before purchasing these items online.

Read more: The Woman Who Read the Whole Internet

The UK government is also waging a similar fight against online consumers and internet users. Civil liberties campaigners recently failed in their fight to prevent the Digital Economy Bill from being passed.

The bill introduces compulsory age verification for all porn sites, and essentially produces a government-accessible database of all your online porn-watching history. Just like the policy of remote seller reporting, it is another step towards a reconfiguration of the online space as one where government can monitor your viewing habits and purchase history.

Photo by Vera Lair via Stocksy

While it may be some time until the new US state requirements are fully operational (it's expected there will be further legal challenges), the move has attracted understandable alarm from civil liberties campaigners.

"The decision to impinge upon the average shopper's privacy in order to make companies comply with tax rules in the US goes beyond being heavy handed," says Renate Samson of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch. "It is one thing to require companies to keep a log of the products they sell, it is quite another to demand they provide personal data on who purchased them."

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Customers could be profiled on their purchases, Samson warns, whether you're a teenager buying the Anarchist's Cookbook or just replacing a well-worn prayer mat with something new.

There's a real threat that foreign hackers could also obtain sensitive data—like your gender identity, your religious beliefs, or your favorite butt plug size—and release them online, or threaten to do so. "The storage of this information will create a honeypot of data which if breached, lost, or hacked, would have serious security consequences for their identity security," Samson says.

And if you think that sounds outlandish, here's a reminder: In a month where Russian hackers were allegedly able to influence the US election result, nothing online is ever truly safe.

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