Pokémon Go and Location Privacy

There is one species Pokémon that even the most dedicated of Pokémon Go players are unlikely to ever catch, and that of course makes it all the desirable.

Privachu like to be left alone to go about their lives. They are not unfriendly and can be quite gregarious. They are also not as rare as one might think given how difficult they are to get hold of. What makes Privachu different from all other Pokémon, is that they choose when and how to reveal themselves, rather than just broadcast their location to anyone that might want to find them. And of course they will only reveal themselves to others they trust not to pass the information on to people they do not want to be found by.

OK, they don’t exist really, I’ve just made them up (though if anyone from Niantic wants to create Privachu, I am willing to be reasonable on the royalties – do get in touch).

Pokémon Go, the augmented reality mobile location based game, is currently taking the world by storm, but has been the source of some significant concern around the amount of personal data collected by the app, and how this may be shared. This is especially important because it is played largely by children.

Much of the early privacy concern focussed around the fact that users appeared to be required to give Niantic, the company behind the game, full access to their Google account (one of the main ways of registering in the game), which would include all their contacts and any documents stored in Google Docs.

However, it was fairly quickly revealed that this was actually the result of a configuration error, which was rapidly corrected, and that Niantic did not make use of or tried to access any of the extra information it didn’t need to verify the identity of the player. Nevertheless, even this short lived issue might have impacted millions of people and should provide a summary lesson in putting privacy thinking at the heart of the user experience design process.

The long term privacy issues with Pokémon Go however clearly focus on the location issue. Of course location based digital services have been around for at least as long as the smartphone itself. Aside from the obvious ubiquity of connectivity, location driven services are the smartphones killer app, the one that makes it worth all the investment in many ways.

What is perhaps different about Pokémon Go, is that it is not simply collecting location data – but it is actively incentivising large numbers of people to visit particular locations where Pokémon can be caught.

Yes there are big questions around the privacy concerns of sharing (selling) of location information with third parties, and those questions are already giving rise to investigations, notably in the USA and Germany.

What I think is more interesting is – how are decisions made about where to place PokéStops, and what Pokémon are to be found there? There is a huge potential here for a kind of targeted manipulation, the encouragement of particular audiences and profiles to visit specific locations. Niantic would be crazy if they didn’t see the potential in selling this capability, and I would be very surprised if on some level they are not already either doing it or thinking about doing it. There will be a powerful profit motive for it. Want to drive more visitors to your location? Pay for a particular Pokémon to make an appearance, or your competitor will.

Then of course there are also the unintended applications of the data. There have already been stories of crimes, even a murder, linked to the location data elements of the game. How long before the first major hack is uncovered?

Pokémon Go is going to be an interesting privacy story for quite some time I think. Not simply because of its huge popularity, though in no small part because of that, but the use of location data is only going to grow over the coming years, and the issues are only going to get more complex. The popularity of Pokemon Go and the huge data it generates, will almost certainly make it a pioneering proving ground for both the problems, and hopefully the solutions.

Meanwhile, if you’d like to know where to find Privachu, you will have to wait for them to reach out, when they have learnt to trust you.

Posted in Audits and Risk Assessment, Consent, Data Breach, Managing Privacy, Privacy by Design.