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TDWI Upside - Where Data Means Business

Pokémon GO’s Release Raises Privacy, Safety Concerns for Kids and Parents

The new augmented reality game is a bona fide phenomenon, but, like many other quickly spreading technologies, the developers may not have fixed all potential issues before release.

Pokémon GO has attracted lots of media and investor attention since its North American release on July 7. We’ve seen record downloads (over 10 million according to a counter at the Google Play Store), extensive usage (“over 60 percent of those who have downloaded the app in the US are using it daily, meaning around 3 percent of the entire U.S. Android population are users of the app,” Similar Web reports), and raising Nintendo’s stock value by some 65 percent -- still rising in trading today (The Pokémon Co. is one-third owned by Nintendo).

The game has also attracted some unwanted attention and is having some unintended consequences for kids and their parents.

In a letter dated July 12 to CEO John Hanke of Niantic, Inc. (Pokémon GO’s developer), Senator Al Franken of Minnesota asks for details about the game’s privacy policy.

Franken points out that “Niantic can collect a broad swath of personal information from its players.” Using location data to customize the game to a player’s locale is one thing, but how is it collected and otherwise used? That could have parents on edge.

Notes TDWI senior research director Fern Halper, “I think part of the price of admission to the game is allowing [Niantic] to see where you are. This means where you are going and what your movement patterns are. That could be useful for retailers as social maps. It could be used by law enforcement (as stated in the game’s agreement). Imagine, though, luring kids to different places?” 

That’s not so far-fetched. A group of armed robbers in Missouri lured eight players to a location by using one of the game’s “Pokestops.”  “I don’t think they were kids, but what if? People are already tweeting that kids are losing their stranger danger sense,” says Halper.  The Daily Mail is reporting that the chief executive of Britain's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Peter Wanless, has heard "'troubling reports' of children being thrown into 'dangerous situations', despite the game only being available since last week."  "He added his concern that the game would 'pose a danger to young people' because the basic safety standards - which creators have a 'weighty responsibility' to enforce - may have been 'overlooked'," the paper's report notes.

What Data is Collected and Shared?

Senator Franken says the company has access to “a significant amount of information, unless users -- many of whom are children -- opt-out of this collection.”

He notes that the game’s privacy policy

states that all of this information can then be shared with The Pokémon Company and “third party service providers,” details for which are not provided, and further indicates that Pokémon GO may share de-identified or aggregated data with other third parties for a non-exhaustive list of purposes.

The policy says the any data collected will be considered to be a business asset and could be “disclosed or transferred to a third party” if Niantic is ever merged or acquired or part of another “business transaction.”

Seven Privacy Concerns

The senator asks CEO John Hanke to respond to seven concerns, including

  • Why information collected is “necessary for provision or improvement of services”
  • What features and capabilities (such as controlling device vibration) are needed to provide or improve services
  • Would the company consider making the game’s permissions opt-in rather than opt-out
  • A list of current service providers with whom the company shares information
  • An exhaustive description of why Pokémon GO would share or sell customer data
  • How parents “provide meaningful consent for their child’s use” of the game
  • Why signup in the iOS version via the player’s Google account gives Niantic full access to that person’s Google account without the user’s knowledge

Franken asks the company to update the app to be sure “very sensitive information is protected.”

Yesterday, the iOS version of Pokémon GO was updated to reduce how many data permissions it asks Google account users to approve. Franken has not announced if that change satisfies his concerns.

Google’s pointer to Niantic’s privacy policy results in a “page not found” error.

Data Protection for Children

A 2010 publication from Common Sense Media, Protecting Our Kids’ Privacy in a Digital World, asks:

So what privacy protections do our children have -- and what protections should they have? At the moment, there’s mainly a law written in 1998, when Google was just beginning and Facebook and Zynga [provider of FarmVille and other popular apps] didn’t exist. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prohibits the collection of “personally identifiable” information -- including name, phone number, email or street address, and Social Security number -- from children ages 12 and under without parental consent. COPPA remains the cornerstone policy protecting children’s online privacy, but the technological advances that have occurred since 1998 make COPPA woefully out of date for keeping children safe from new threats to their privacy.

Senate Bill 547, introduced by Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey on February 24, 2015, A bill to establish a regulatory framework for the comprehensive protection of personal data for individuals under the aegis of the Federal Trade Commission, to amend the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998 to improve provisions relating to collection, use, and disclosure of personal information of children, and for other purposes, has gone nowhere.

Physical Safety Concerns Grow

The game is also raising concerns about a different type of privacy: trespassing that could also endanger children (and adults). “The Goochland County [Virginia] Sheriff’s Office has been experiencing a rise in Trespassing and Suspicious Activity events recently due to the new Pokémon Go app” the law enforcement agency noted on their Facebook page.

“These actions are considered trespassing and put the individual and Deputies in a position of unnecessary risk. Please refrain from going onto property without proper permission or after appropriate times. Parents should encourage their children to avoid these actions for their own safety and enjoy the game responsibly.”

Parents may also want to check out how their kids can safely play the game on a bicycle here.

Fleeting Concerns?

Of course, privacy and safety concerns may fade if the game craze fades. Game players can be a notoriously fickle bunch, and performance issues have already been reported. On the other hand, as Ars Technica reports, between the long-standing popularity of the Pokémon brand and the huge initial download numbers, “even a large drop [in users] will leave a huge core of dedicated players eagerly trying to catch them all well into the future.”

About the Author

James E. Powell is the editorial director of TDWI, including research reports, the Business Intelligence Journal, and Upside newsletter. You can contact him via email here.

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