It’s convention time again and that means a large influx of fanatics dressed their best gather with some of the biggest names in the nation for a weekend of ceremonies, announcements, and a large show of support for what people believe truly matters in this country. Yes, I’m talking about San Diego ComicCon where every other person is in cosplay and celebrities are around every corner. This is where the magic happens.This is where some of the biggest names in the industry share some of their biggest announcements of the year. Among those names this year is acclaimed filmmaker Oliver Stone who has been making his rounds promoting his newest film Snowden, a fictionalized account of the story of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
At the Snowden panel on Thursday, the former Troma Films director warned against the new augmented reality game Pokemon Go saying:
[I]t’s a new level of invasion. Once the government had been hounded by Snowden, of course the corporations went into encryption, because they had to for survival, right? But the search for profits is enormous. Nobody has ever seen, in the history of the world, something like Google, ever. It’s the fastest-growing business ever, and they have invested huge amounts of money into what surveillance is, which is data-mining. They’re data-mining every person in this room for information as to what you’re buying, what it is you like, and above all, your behavior. Pokémon Go kicks into that. It’s everywhere. It’s what some people call surveillance capitalism. It’s the newest stage. You’ll see a new form of, frankly, a robot society, where they will know how you want to behave and they will make the mockup that matches how you behave and feed you. It’s what they call totalitarianism.
Others have even accused Pokemon Go of being a tool of the NSA. In this new age, the backlash against such video games isn’t coming from the Tipper Gore censorship crowd but from civil libertarians and leftists who are genuinely concerned about their privacy. Adding to this concern, Niantic, the company that developed the game, was founded by Keyhole, Inc. founder John Hanke. Hanke is a former foreign affairs official for the US government and Keyhole is most famous for their development of the GPS-satellite based “Earth,” a project funded by In-Q-Tel, a venture capitalist firm of the CIA, and later sold to Google and renamed “Google Earth.”
Scientific funding and military research more often than not goes hand in hand in this country so it’s no surprise when a lot of our common technologies, from duct tape to epipens, were created for military use. The GPS-satellite tracking technology used in Pokemon Go is in that same boat. But just because it’s used by the military for questionable purposes does not mean it can’t be used for more useful things like helping bring your 90’s nostalgia to life. That’s not to say that the technology couldn’t be used to spy on you but they’re no more or less likely to give up your personal data to the government than any other giant phone, internet, or tech company.
Now as to concerns about data farming for corporate advertising, of course that’s their tactic. Pokemon Go is a mixture of Facebook’s data mining and targeted advertising scheme with the freemium game model. That way they can give the game away for free, not have to fully rely on micro-purchases which are the hallmark of freemium gaming, and make even more money than if they sold the game outright. In these stages of late capitalism it’s the newest craze in marketing and every tech company wants in on that sweet advertising cash. Of course while this data is being mined for advertising profits, it can easily be misused and poses many privacy concerns.
But rest assured, it is doubtful the NSA is using Pokemon Go directly or at least anymore than they are using your internet history, phone data, or social media accounts, many of which already track your location among other things. And while Niantic is clearly getting in on that data mining payload, they are no more guilty in this than Facebook and Google, which many of us knowingly use regardless. Just leave the phone elsewhere for a while if need be. Security culture is important and such privacy concerns should be acknowledged and hopefully even addressed. It was because of such conversations that Niantic took out a clause in their user agreement that allowed the company full access to the user’s Google account, which Niantic claims was a “mistake.” We should be aware of what traces we are potentially leaving and attempt to use encryption and common sense to protect more sensitive data. But let’s not jump to referring to a capitalist profit scheme with unsavory consequences as “totalitarianism.” When we use such terms lightly they have no real meaning. If Pokemon Go is totalitarian than so is Google. Let’s call this what it is, talk about it honestly like we do about Google and Facebook, and weigh for ourselves the pros and cons of playing one of the most groundbreaking video games in history. You may find it’s not worth the risks and that’s understandable. Personally I am willing to take my chances to catch ‘em all! Happy ComicCon.