Is Pokemon Go a Security Threat?

After only a month in the wild, Pokemon Go has become a worldwide phenomenon. Revenues for the app have reached the $200 million mark in the first 30 days and after only 5 days, Pokemon passed Twitter on the number of daily active users. If that wasn’t enough, usage data shows that people are spending more time on Pokemon Go than on Facebook. It has captured the hearts, minds, and devices of people all over the world.

However, it was only a matter of time before someone raised questions and concerns around the safety and security of a game that has found its way into the hands of millions. In fact, several countries have taken a stance against the game and have gone so far as to ban Pokemon Go altogether, citing security concerns.

The Israeli Army has banned Pokemon Go, arguing that the game activates phone cameras as well as location services, which could reveal sensitive military locations to someone else that is watching. China has expressed similar concerns, however the game has yet to be released there.

On the conspiracy theory front, in Russia, a pro-Kremlin website accused the U.S. State Department of using the Pokemon Go app to control the world. John Hanke, the Chief Executive Officer of Niantic Inc., the company that developed the game, did in fact work for the U.S. government however this obviously extreme paranoia! However, a more legitimate concern was brought forth by a Russian legislator who suggested the game may be used to organize a flash mob and cause mass disturbances.

While some of these concerns are obviously overblown, there are some reasons for legitimate concern. In fact, it’s not just foreign governments who have expressed a level of unease with the app. Indeed, even the U.S. military has gone so far as to not allow the use of Pokemon Go in restricted areas.

The reason we are seeing so much concern from government bodies, the military, and security professionals is that from a technical perspective there are some legitimate reasons for some to feel apprehensive. For instance, Niantic could make people go wherever they wanted to simply by setting up a Pokemon gym or placing a rare Pokemon at strategic locations. Pokemon Go is able to populate specific geographic locations with people simply by placing unique creatures based on their closeness to water, certain landmarks, and other parameters and clearly have a level of control over what Pokemon appear and where.

While all of this attention and security anxiety may sound like the makings of an over-hyped conspiracy theory there are those who take even the smallest security threats very seriously. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t tape over his laptop camera for no reason. In fact, the rich and famous are no strangers to those who wish to invade their privacy and obtain personal and private data nor are militaries and their representative governments. For these groups in particular, being paranoid is a defense mechanism that helps them to prepare for and prevent otherwise unforeseen security incidents.

Beyond the concerns of various governments and militaries, consumer advocates are expressing worry around questions that we do not yet have answers to. For instance, if the primary goal of Niantic is to make money with various in-app purchases or through advertising, as their user agreement suggests then why do they insist on collecting identity information from Google accounts or from social networks? Does the organization plan to sell the data it collects? There have also been concerns expressed around the user agreement and legal recourse available, or better yet, not available, to those who might have legitimate reasons to take legal action against Niantic.

Pokemon Go certainly isn’t the first application or game to cause security concerns and will absolutely not be the last. It is however a sign of what is to come. We are at the cusp of a tidal wave of apps that fundamentally change the way we experience the physical environment and combine an ability to track and direct us in ways never before imagined. While Pokemon Go may not be the first app to track us, direct us and gather our personal data, apps like this which are able to capture our location and combine images and video identification are quite troubling for some and those who wish to limit their capability or disrupt their advancement face a very steep uphill battle.

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