Journalist, content writer and translator based in Berlin.

The app that turns your phone into a handheld surveillance camera and tracks your location

I am walking down the street and everybody is looking at me. Do you know that dream? A woman with a red dress stops the buggy with her bright-faced child and looks at you until you finally cut a turn. Even a wrinkly old man tries to stand up straight to stare at you.

This Orwellian feeling creeps up on me when thinking of Pokémon Go. That little game where you catch funny creatures? The game that actually makes children get up and walk around instead of sitting on the couch? That game? Yes, that game.

Users might not realise that a lot of information is gathered on them as they play. Additionally, the users of this greatly successful app are filming their play and distributing it online.

Data collection. Niantic, Inc. (Niantic) shares certain collected information with third parties. ‘We may share aggregated information and non-identifying information with third parties for research and analysis, demographic profiling, and other similar purposes’.

Niantic gathers among other things ‘cell/mobile tower triangulation, wifi triangulation, and/or GPS’. As this information does not identify you as a person, it can be shared with third parties.

What can third parties do with this kind of information?

Let’s say Google gets this non-identifiable information from Niantic. Google already has a lot of information on you if you use Google products like Gmail and Hangouts. Some people will also have used their Google account to register for Pokémon Go (the other options are using your Facebook account or Pokémon Trainer Club account).

Without getting a speck of data from Niantic, Google can already analyse the age, location, and interests of  users registered on Pokémon Go with a Google account. Google tracks what you look for on their search engine, if you allow them to record your searches for advertisement purposes. They also know where you go, if you are signed into your account and have location services of your phone turned on.

So Google has a lot of information on you, but they do not know what you actually do at the places you visit. This is where the information of Niantic becomes relevant, because it discloses where people are and what they are doing (playing Pokémon Go).

Knowing when people play Pokémon Go, where, for how long and how often, illustrates people’s actual behaviour and this is unbelievably valuable. The marketing and advertisement challenge nowadays is finding your audience. You can not sell your product on TV when your target audience is watching series on demand and skipping advertisements for example. The million-dollar question right now is where to find your audience and when?

With the information Google receives from Niantic, they can tell you what kind of audience is playing Pokémon Go with their Google account, when and where. They can break the group down using location, age, and even credit card company (with information from Google Play store).

We feel so safe when Niantic or any other company only shares non-identifiable information with third parties, but those parties might already have a lot of information on us. This non-identifiable information could be the last piece of the puzzle needed to get a complete picture of who we are and what we do. This is something that does not seem to have sunk in with most people yet.

Filming. While users of Pokémon Go give away massive amounts of data about themselves, they also collect and distribute data about others. Recording and sharing gameplay happens all over the Internet. These videos include identifiable information like number plates, businesses, and even people passing by.

It is not allowed to photograph or film a person, or their identifiable information, and use it for commercial gain, but people are doing this. YouTube is filled with videos of gameplay anyway, but I even found a post on Facebook titled ‘If you guys want to know how to record your POKEMON GO journey to upload on youtube to make some MONEY!!!!’ [sic]

In theory you need a model release for any identifiable person in commercial content. How many users, of whom many are children, would know this?

My biggest concern is the normalcy of filming others and sharing that information. Some players might use the videos to make money, while others do not. In any case, personal information of others is put out there for everyone to see. It would never be allowed if Pokémon Go recorded, stored, and distributed gameplay with third parties.

There have been concerns about the number of CCTV cameras in public areas. For example in Britain, there is one camera for every 11 people. Now, every one of us can film people in public and share that content. At least the CCTV cameras serve a purpose – catching criminals – and the videos are not uploaded on YouTube.

You think I am exaggerating? Pokémon Go is just the first of its kind and it went viral in a few days. Other companies will also investigate the possibilities of augmented reality. It is one of those inventions that will become widespread quickly. Cameras in glasses and watches will be among us soon.

It scares me that we find it so normal to be filmed in public and that this content is shared. It is a huge leap from the way we looked at CCTV cameras a few decades ago.

I can choose to value my privacy more than entertainment, and not use apps like Pokémon Go, but there are other people recording and distributing that information anyway. The amount of control people have over their identifiable information has dropped tremendously because of Pokémon Go. The number of people filming in public has increased dramatically and will increase with every new app that uses augmented reality, unless we enforce rules about privacy.

With these kind of inventions, new to the public and used by kids, we cannot expect people to understand all the consequences of their actions. Platforms that enable the sharing of videos that might violate privacy, or are used for commercial gain without the proper release forms, should delete all videos where people or identifiable information has been shown. They should also take steps to clearly tell their users not to upload them in the future.


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