Is Pokemon Go respecting your privacy when it comes to the amount of data it collects? That’s a question you should ask yourself considering that the game does require you to provide the game unlimited access to your location data and camera. And you’d think you should not be worried about Niantic swiping over your data for malicious use – or even spying purposes.
Within two weeks of its release last month, Pokemon Go, the augmented reality gaming sensation, surpassed, by one estimate, Twitter, Facebook, and Netflix in its day-to-day popularity on Android phones. Over on Apple devices, the game was downloaded more times in its first week than any app that came before it.
The suddenly vast scale of Pokemon Go adoption is matched by the game’s aggressive use of personal information. Unlike, say, Twitter, Facebook, or Netflix, the app requires uninterrupted use of your location and camera — a “trove of sensitive user data,” as one privacy watchdog put it in a concerned letter to federal regulators.
Niantic’s CEO has already been one of the central figures of a major privacy scandal while at Google, the Google Maps-related Wi-Fi sniffing “program.” You may not remember the whole thing, and you may think it’s not real, but a new report does an excellent job recapping its highlights, painting John Hanke as a CEO that you’d better think twice before trusting.
Mind you, nobody pointed the finger at John Hanke for Google’s Wi-Fi sniffing fiasco. But it all happened while he was heading one of Google’s most impressive teams, the division that was travelling the globe looking to expand the reach of Street View.
Hanke reached Google after the search giant purchased his Keyhole startup, a CIA-funded venture that transformed into Google Earth – neat product, right?
Referred to as Wi-Spy, the scandal affected Google on a worldwide level. It was discovered that Street View cars were equipped with Wi-Fi technology that could capture traffic from unencrypted wireless networks. The scandal spawned investigations, all summed up by The Intercept, in multiple markets around the world, including the US, UK, France, Canada, South Korea, New Zealand, Spain, Italy, Hungary, and Germany.
Hanke at the time denied having any knowledge of the matter, and Google tried blaming the whole thing on a rogue engineer at first. However, as time went by, Google had to admit that serious mistakes were made with the Street View cars, but nobody was fired. The resulting reports have failed to identify a person responsible, though a Googler who still works at the company was identified as being the rogue engineer.
Marius Milner (who said he had no contact to Hanke as The Intercept notes) also co-penned a patent that describes the kind of technology that a game such as Pokemon Go would use to convince a user to give up his or her information freely. That patent remained with Google after Niantic was spun off into its own entity.
“The game objective can be directly linked with a data collection activity,” the patent reads. “An exemplary game objective directly linked with data collection activity can include a task that involves acquiring information about the real world and providing this information as a condition for completion of the game objective.”
One conspiracy theory does suggest the game could be used for spying purposes.
That certainly sounds like something Pokemon Go could do, though any such wrongdoings are yet to be proven. The company already went through a severe privacy-infringing scandal soon after it launched the game, as it was discovered the app got full access to a person’s Google account than necessary. The company fixed the problem, labeling an error that caused no harm.
Some think that Niantic’s history – or it’s CEO history – is enough to cause concern, even though there’s nothing to prove a link between Hanke and Wi-Spy.
Writing to the FTC, EPIC said that “history suggests Niantic will continue to disregard consumer privacy and security, which increases the need for close FTC scrutiny as Niantic’s popularity – and trove of sensitive user data – continues to grow.”
“Given the prior history of Google Street View, there is little reason to trust the assurance regarding the current state of Niantic’s data collection practices,” the company continued.
Time will tell whether Niantic’s viral game will be used for anything else other than Pokemon fun. But what’s clear is that this particular Google privacy scandal will still haunt Niantic. At least for as long as some people still remember it – The Interceptdoes a great job summarizing it, so read it in full at this link.