Troy Reimink: \'Pokemon Go\' Is A Privacy Nightmare

I was up north over the weekend with no cellular signal and thought I'd fallen into a wormhole when, upon returning home, everyone on the internet was talking about Pokemon, a craze I'd managed to avoid in the 1990s and never expected to hear about again.

"Pokemon Go" is the first major augmented reality game, and since its release last week has captivated the digital world. Using their smartphones, players try to capture digital Pokemon creatures hidden in real-world locations, then assemble a collection he or she will train to fight against ... never mind. Just know that if you run over a person who wanders into traffic while staring at a phone, it's probably a "Pokemon Go" player.

It's hard to overstate the swiftness and intensity with which "Pokemon Go" has caught on. Nintendo, which released the game, saw its stock jump nearly 40 percent in the days after "Pokemon Go" became available. It's the top-selling app through both Google and Apple. The game has already been installed on at least 5 percent of the Android smartphones in America. It already has more users than the Tinder dating app and soon will overtake Twitter.

Many in the media are heralding "Pokemon Go's" success as a signal that augmented reality — which differs from virtual reality in that it enhances the surrounding world rather than simulating a different one — is the future of entertainment. At the very least, it's getting people off the couch.

And how could blurring the lines between the real and digital worlds ever go wrong? A woman looking for Pokemon near a river in Wyoming instead found a dead body. Police in Missouri arrested four men accused of using the app's features to lure players to a physical location and rob them. A man in Massachusetts learned the game had decided his home was a "gym" (a Pokemon battle zone) when dozens of strangers appeared at his door. The game placed a series of Pokestops — locations where players can acquire free in-game rewards — inside Washington, DC's Holocaust Museum.

What’s in the user agreement — which I’m sure everyone has read carefully — is even more unsettling. Downloading and running the app doesn't cost you any money directly, and is thus promoted as "free," which is the least accurate term in the entire digital economy. You've already paid with the data you've agreed to surrender in exchange for using this twinkly new game, and its privacy policy is, shall we say, permissive.

The app requires access to your location data, your phone's camera and microphone, IP address and Google account information. "Pokemon Go's" original privacy policy stated it required full access to a player's Google account, which would allow it to see and modify nearly everything you’ve done within a Google profile. The company that developed the app, Niantic (which is affiliated with Google's parent Alphabet), walked back this part of the agreement in response to a backlash, and now says it only requires your username.

But the implications are menacing enough even with the modified language. "Pokemon Go’s incredibly granular, block-by-block map data, combined with its surging popularity, may soon make it one of, if not the most, detailed location-based social graphs ever compiled," Joseph Bernstein wrote in Buzzfeed. Nothing ominous about that!

Niantic also claims the right to share your information with third party entities to conduct “research and analysis, demographic profiling, and other similar purposes,” and with law enforcement to stop “illegal, unethical, or legally actionable activity.” Nope, nothing to see here!

None of this is wildly out of the ordinary, but that’s the thing. We’ve become so accustomed to accepting these kinds of terms that we don’t think twice when the most popular games and services on the planet continue to shape a world in which the people who care about privacy sound like shrill cranks.

Gotta catch 'em all, as the game says. But we’ve already been caught.

Troy Reimink is a writer and musician who lives in west Michigan.

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Troy Reimink: \'Pokemon Go\' Is A Privacy Nightmare


Troy Reimink: \'Pokemon Go\' Is A Privacy Nightmare

Troy Reimink: \'Pokemon Go\' Is A Privacy Nightmare


Troy Reimink: \'Pokemon Go\' Is A Privacy Nightmare

Troy Reimink: \'Pokemon Go\' Is A Privacy Nightmare


Troy Reimink: \'Pokemon Go\' Is A Privacy Nightmare