Greta Kooy, News Editor // Illustration by Ryan McDiarmid
When Niantic finally released Pokémon Go to the public in July of 2016 it took the world by storm. Nearly everyone was playing it – you, your elderly neighbour, the bus driver, the lady who brings you your mail, my mom. Although the hype around the game has since faded, the app still has an extensive and active fan base.
Forbes reported in June of 2018 that the game was more popular two years after its initial release than ever, raking in $104 million in just one month. By the end of 2018, the app had reached over 800 million downloads.
Pokémon Go hit us from all the right angles. The nostalgia factor had us desperate to catch ‘em all, and the bonus augmented reality aspect meant we could hunt our favourite Pokémon right in the comfort of our homes. For most of us, the game was a popular fad. It got people out of the house and into the neighbourhoods. On many occasions, swarms of people were seen travelling in packs around various cities around the world searching for the rarest and most elusive Pokémon characters.
But with all the excitement also came speculation. In true modern-day fashion, conspiracy theories began popping up and certain aspects of the game started to make people wonder if they had jumped on the bandwagon too quickly.
A few passing theories include the US government teaming up with Japan in order to trick Americans into exercising more. Hey, not all conspiracy theories are bad. This theory was further expanded on, linking the game to Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign.
Moving into the more sinister theories, some speculate that Pokémon Go was created for the benefit of our mobile carrier companies, the ones raking in all the cash when we surpass our monthly data limits. The game is notorious for draining data so it’s really no surprise that skeptics looked to those who stood to make a serious profit.
The most notable conspiracy theory, however, comes from the app’s use of augmented reality and that it is a geo-caching location-based game. Some theorists believe that the US government is using collected information from the app as a mass surveillance tool, logging our movements as we navigate our way through our local communities, and abroad, in search for the perfect CP Machamp. Players login to Pokémon Go with their Google accounts, the only way for users to access the game. Here’s where things get interesting.
John Hanke, founder and CEO of Niantic, the developer and publisher of Pokémon Go, previously worked for the US government in Washington, DC. Hanke also happened to be the CEO of a company called Keyhole, which was acquired by Google in 2004. Keyhole, under Hanke’s authority, was responsible for the development of the technology that led to the creation of Google Earth and Google Maps. The funding for Keyhole’s mapping project and technology, which Gawker pointed out, came from In-Q-Tel, an American venture capital firm whose goal is to provide information and support to intelligence agencies within the US. Sounds a little coincidental, no?
Whether or not this is a far-fetched theory, what’s true is that we are trusting Niantic with very sensitive and personal information. The game requires access to location data, and if you’re hoping to use the augmented reality feature, access to your cameras is a must. You might not think what you’re up to is particularly interesting and has no meaning to anyone else whatsoever, but our personal information, like our location, is much more valuable than you might think.
Gawker also points out a particular section of the game’s terms of service, which reads “We may disclose any information about you (or your authorized child) that is in our possession or control to government or law enforcement officials or private parties”. Perhaps the government isn’t collecting information to spy on us, but rather that Niantic is selling our personal information to other parties – that kind of thing happens all the time and is extremely profitable. And Niantic could if they wanted to. After all, you have to agree to their terms and conditions before embarking on your Pikachu search. By clicking accept, any personal information gathered by Niantic from the game app is theirs to use. Even if Niantic isn’t using or selling our personal information, they still have the ability to know where all their players are at any point. This also means that they can track who we’re with, where we like to frequent and even where we might be off to next. Niantic can collect a map of our lives, and can see inside our homes, our schools and around our neighbourhoods.
At the end of the day, a conspiracy theory is called so for a reason. Regardless, it might be worth it to consider where your information is going and who might have access to it before you decide to catch ‘em all.