How Pokemon Go company Niantic is collecting (and using) your life’s data

    
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We probably don’t need to tell our audience this, given that while yes, you all have phones, you’re also typically not obsessive about gaming on them in the same way as other gamers. MMORPGs work better on PCs. We get it. Nevertheless, Kotaku’s recent deep-dive into the data-collection goals of Pokemon Go company Niantic will probably be an eye-opener of the sort that makes you pick up your phone and block all your apps from whatever permissions you’ve unwittingly given them. Or delete them altogether. Or maybe just set your phone on fire and throw your wifi in the bin. Maybe just do that.

Kotaku peeks into Niantic and Niantic boss John Hanke themselves, from the rise of Google Geo and Google Maps and Google Earth, the Wi-Spy scandal, and the dawn of Niantic Labs, which as MMO players will recall built Ingress, and then Pokemon Go and Harry Potter Wizards Unite, out of the original Google Field Trip app. Pokemon Go, of course, blew up in a global way – and in a legal way, sparking endless debates over virtual property rights, lawsuits, and actual crimes.

But it’s Niantic’s data collection and use that Kotaku seems particularly interested in, and it’s where the concern starts to rise. The publication sought data from EU players who’d filed GDPR requests with Niantic to see just what it is that Niantic’s been collecting.

“The files we received contained detailed information about the lives of these players: the number of calories they likely burned during a given session, the distance they traveled, the promotions they engaged with. Crucially, each request also contained a large file of timestamped location data, as latitudes and longitudes. In total, Kotaku analyzed more than 25,000 location records voluntarily shared with us by 10 players of Niantic games. On average, we found that Niantic kept about three location records per minute of gameplay of Wizards Unite, nearly twice as many as it did with Pokémon Go. For one player, Niantic had at least one location record taken during nearly every hour of the day, suggesting that the game was collecting data and sharing it with Niantic even when the player was not playing.”

For example, looking into one player’s history, Kotaku was able to figure out where he or she lived, worked, and ate – apparently, Burger King was on the menu a lot. The journalists tracked another player’s dog-walking and pharmacy habits. None of the players who volunteered to hand data to Kotaku seemed aware just how much Niantic had on them, and like other companies confronted with these problems (including Google), Niantic insisted that the collection of location data while the game isn’t being played was a “bug” that it has now fixed. It also claims that data are looked at only in the aggregate – that nobody really cares whether you eat at Burger King and that it doesn’t sell its users’ location data.

But of course, it’s perfectly content to use those data to lure players to retailers like Starbucks. Moreover, Kotaku points out that Niantic has been busily filing patents related to gameplay-related data collection, including one for a “commercial game feature module”:

“[It’s] a technology that lets advertising partners tweak a game’s features in realtime to better incentivize nearby users to visit. An app using the tech could get requests from advertisers to do things like ‘locating virtual elements at specified locations in the virtual world,’ or ‘providing virtual items and/or enhanced powers to specific players.” It also describes the technology’s ability to ‘continuously monitor the positions of players” and based on this information ‘identify players with a predefined radius of commercial activity.’

Extra bonus points to the article for the constant embedded ads for Google Stadia, tailored to my search history and article content, no doubt.

In response to the piece, MMORPG designer Raph Koster tweeted out his 2017 GDC talk about learning from MMOs when it comes to the ethics of virtual worlds. If it sounds familiar, it might be because we covered it back in 2017 too – or because devs like Koster have been issuing these warnings for a very long time and not enough people are listening.

Source: Kotaku, Twitter

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rotrap
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rotrap

Seems the patents still show how bad a system that is with ideas obvious even to those as practitioners of the field getting patents. With the changes done during Obama’s term to change the rules to first to file rather than prior art the patent minefield is going to get worse than ever.

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Armsbend

Pre-requisites for anything I download on mobile. It cannot be Russian or Chinese or some other bullshit Eastern Bloc country. It must have the ability to turn off tracking/use when the app is off. I will not log in using Google.

Safe so far.

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styopa

Who’s surprised by this?
I’m pretty sure that when I’m playing PokeGO, and the game is literally moving me around on a local map, they’re pretty obviously tracking my location.
Congrats boys, you can tell where I walk for exercise every day?

It’s a free to play game, it’s mildly entertaining, and it gives me something to do while getting a bit of exercise that would otherwise be stultifyingly boring. I’m happy to trade them my location for that.

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Anstalt

This shouldn’t really be much of a surprise. Security and privacy basically don’t exist on the internet – even with the best of intentions on the part of the developers, there will always be someone out there with superior skills who can crack the security and invade your privacy.

There are only really two solutions to the issue:

1) Stop giving away personal data. This is impossible in most cases as you need to often give personal details to register for things or pay for things.

2) Stop collecting or storing personal data. This has a small possibility of success, but businesses will fight this for as long as possible. In the modern world, data is just too valuable, businesses can’t help but collect as much as possible. It helps with their decision making and business planning, so why wouldn’t they collect it all?!

Option 2 will only be successful if governments get serious about punishing offenders. The GDPR has the potential to start this process, the fines for breaking the rules are pretty big (5% of global turnover) but we’ve yet to see it being enforced. We’re barely seeing incidents being reported. For example, if a website admin looks at a user’s name or email address without the admin having a legitimate reason to do so, that is a data breach and your company should be fined. But, admin areas aren’t designed to hide personal details (yet) so these data breaches happen every day, often just by logging in to an admin panel.

With companies like Google, Facebook etc basing their entire business model around abusing our data, they should really be put out of business within a few months due to fines for breaching the GDPR. If that happened, it would send a great message to the rest of the tech world to finally get serious about privacy and security.

But that wont happen.

camren_rooke
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camren_rooke

If the app is free, YOU are the product.

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styopa

So many people say that about phone apps, for example, and then don’t understand the basic economics of “free” network television.

Dantos
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Dantos

Im just waiting for when insurance companies will require you to be using their apps which track all these things. How fast and well you drive, what restaurants you go to and how often, how much exercise you get, if you work in or frequent higher crime areas, what kinds of shops you frequent. I dont think its that far away.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

The slow rollout begins in 5 years probably, ten years from now employers will demand access rights to your Geo Locations and Fit Bit info; in 20 years we’ll all be cyborgs with basic functions tied to implants that can throttled by companies and neuro receptors triggered by your employer (suddenly you get a great sense of euphoria when your manager asks you to come in extra on weekends, or work 16 hour days; by the end of your 80 hour week you’ll feel like you’ve had the best orgasm of your life while catching that dragon the eludes long time Heroin users).

deekay_plus
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deekay_plus

my mom just got an app from her car insurance company to track her driving as a potential discount on her bill thing.

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Wilhelm Arcturus

My wife looks at couches on the Macy’s web site on her computer and within minutes I start getting ads for the Macy’s furniture department in Words With Friends on my iPad. And then people ask why I don’t have Alexa or any of the internet of things smart devices in our home. It isn’t the massive data collection I worry about so much as the careless disregard for security that so many companies have for that data.

But back in the 90s I was a victim of credit card fraud largely because a major bank in Ohio sold a huge batch of credit card numbers directly to the scammers, so crass disregard for customer data isn’t a new thing. (I just got a check for $14 for that settlement a couple months back.)

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Greaterdivinity

I mean…most of this shouldn’t be surprising. OF COURSE location based apps are tracking all our data and giving the companies full visibility on our movements, that’s literally what they’re designed to do and that’s LITERALLY the core gameplay mechanic to them.

This is a lack of awareness about data security and how these companies collect/use our information. And this shit needs to be aggressively curtailed.

Also, just using this as an excuse to offer my low-key conspiracy theory that Nintendo is looking to slide back into the health market after their Wii-era efforts didn’t pan out. Think about it –

Pokemon Go – I’m sure Niantic is sharing this data with Nintendo, and that means Nintendo now has access to all player movements so they can track activity etc.

Pokemon Sleep – Now they’ll also be tracking sleep cycles, another important aspect to personal health.

I’m eagerly awaiting the “Pokemon Eats!” app that tracks and rewards you based on what you consume, the “Pokemon Drinks!” app that tracks and rewards you based on what you drink, and other related apps so they can functionally build full-scope health profiles for users across multiple apps.

Run my life for me, Nintendo. Turn me into a Mario. Or a Yoshi, I’d like to be a Yoshi.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

In other news cigarettes can kill you.

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Greaterdivinity

I dunno, I asked the good scientists at the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company about this and they assured me that regularly smoking cigarettes was part of a healthy lifestyle that will contribute to a long and illness-free life.

Surely they couldn’t be LYING to me.

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silverlock

Also “many women prefer giving birth to smaller babies”

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Wilhelm Arcturus

Back in the 80s RJR put out a magazine called “Smoker” or something like that which espoused all the benefits of smoking. The RJR rep left a copy for us in the break room of the grocery store I was working at back in high school. I recall a whole article about how to refute people’s complaints about your smoking habit. Talking points! It went into great detail about how people cannot be allergic to cigarette smoke. Something to do with the particulate size.

I wish I had kept it.

Mordyjuice
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Mordyjuice

and pay no attention to those porn ads on your phone after you catch that Squirtle hiding behind the Porno Store downtown.

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