With Juul coming under unrelenting fire from all sides regarding their part in the fictional teen vaping epidemic, the e-cigarette titan has released a new product aimed at monitoring their customers. Meet the Juul C1 – the first app-paired “smart” vape.
The Juul C1 had a soft launch this week, releasing in Canada and the UK, presumably in order to measure its efficacy and work out any bugs before its full, global launch. The C1 is paired with an Android-only app which allows users to track puffs as well as track the frequency, location, and times of use. It’ll even include a locator in case you lose your Juul. For Juul owners who are constantly misplacing the slender little device, these features may be worth the price of admission.
On the other hand, the Juul C1 fits squarely into the modern tech industry’s tradition of collecting data. According to a report from Men’s Health, Juul claims that they have “no designs to sell this data to third parties at this time.” Dan Thomson, a spokesperson for Juul, says, “The objective of us designing this product was not for us to collect data per se, it was to be able to give data to customers.”
Whether you believe them or not, the Juul C1’s data-gathering is a bit intense. While the app certainly provides utility, which will be appreciated by vapers, there’s a valid argument to be made that its data-mining operations run a little too deep. For instance, the app will require facial-recognition and a 2-step authentication system before you can vape. Naturally, this was implemented as another show of good faith regarding Juul’s dedication to preventing underage vaping. For adults, however, this complicated set of verification steps will undoubtedly become annoying very quickly.
Then there’s Juul’s plan for the future, which paints an even darker picture. While it hasn’t been implemented yet, Juul is currently considering implementing a geofencing function in the app as well. This would prevent the device from firing in certain areas like schools.
Obviously, teenagers are still going to be entirely able to circumvent all these new security protocols by just picking up “non-smart” vapes, but that’s where this entire story becomes very alarming.
While Juul is obviously tripping over themselves to appease the FDA, the courts, and the angry parent mob, this type of technology is just the latest feature of the dystopian surveillance state in which we live. Since the early 2000s, every government in the world has had access to basically all the data they need on every one of their citizens. More recently, just about every app you download on your phone needs access to all your personal information. In 2016, it finally came to light just how badly Facebook and other social media sites were abusing their users’ private data. Now, we have a vape which includes just about all the same concerning features.
Call it exaggeration or cry paranoia if you will, but there’s a direct line from say, the Patriot Act of 2001 to the Juul C1. In late 2001, the entire country was on edge. Our president was able to get us directly involved in a permanent conflict in the Middle East, strip private citizens of their rights, and justify torture – all because the nation was awash in hysteria. Now we have a “vaping epidemic” being pushed on us by the media. Once again, otherwise sound-minded, rational people are willing to completely forego any sense of privacy or sovereignty in their own lives to fight the imaginary enemy placed before us. It was the vague threat of “anti-American terrorism” then and it’s “the vaping epidemic” now. Clearly, these are issues of different magnitude and severity, but the sentiment and the trajectory is the same.
Because, at the end of the day, that’s the real problem here. The Juul C1 isn’t going to tank. Juul Labs is a massive corporation with Big Tobacco money coming in; they know how to make a product that sells, and they wouldn’t put this thing out if it wasn’t likely to catch on. Whether people buy it for the puff counter, the Juul-location technology, or just to satisfy their unending addiction to new technologies, they will buy it. And as they do, more and more people will be putting their personal information in the hands of yet another tech industry titan which is arguably even less trustworthy and moral than a company like Facebook. Facebook, which sold all its users’ information to the highest bidder at the drop of a hat.
Once the Juul C1 becomes popular, it will become time to reckon with the consequences. Legislators and federal institutions are laser-focused on Juul right now – it’s hard to tell if they’re even aware that other vape companies exist. But if this new and intrusive technology works, what is their next step? Surely teenagers will abandon the Juul train and pick up any one of the other hundreds of Juul-like devices out there. Once that begins to happen, can you really say it’s far-fetched to imagine national legislation mandating that all vape devices track their users?
It’s a scary thought, but not improbable. If something like that were to happen, the primary impact would likely be two-fold. First, you’d see some companies go down immediately. Not every vape company has the means to test and develop advanced security software including facial recognition and geofencing. Next, you’ll find companies abandoning innovation in favor of complying with increasingly strict and draconian legal measures. We’ll start seeing vapes with advanced security apps instead of meaningful, user-directed features. A vape that recognizes you and responds to its name but doesn’t have adjustable airflow or decent coils, for instance.
Technophobia is an often irrational and overstated fear of the increasing role technology plays in our lives. Generally speaking, there’s no reason to distrust or hate new technology simply because it’s new. But when a massive company like Juul begins pushing something simply to save their own ass, it pays to consider all the ramifications and start thinking down the line a little bit. Juul is not a benevolent watchdog for the vaping community; instead we should all keep a close eye on them and ensure they don’t bring the whole industry down.