Pokemon Go Wants Your Data, But Not Your Personal Data

Published: Jul 15, 2016 03:11am EDT
By Dylan Moore, for Konsume Technology

Please Note: This article was updated Jul 15, 2016 @ 03:11am EDT


By now, the international phenomenon known as Pokemon Go! has shown up on most peoples' radar. If you're not aware, the Nintendo company Pokemon recently launched a mobile app, with the help of augmented reality company Niantic, that uses the player's camera and GPS position to place game-related challenges throughout the real world. This allows people to discover lots of other players, socialize, and get in touch with their bodies and nature by urging and incentivizing the player to go outside and walk in order to achieve the title of "Master Pokemon Trainer" or perhaps, "the very best".

Besides monstrous success, the Pokemon app has been the center of a small bit of controversy regarding the iPhone permissions. Some users discovered that the app will siphon essentially every detail and shred of data from your Google account you've probably got registered in the phone. As of this writing, a patch has already been released that resolves that issue, with the update live on the App store. No issues reported on the Android side of things. This, however, lends to a theory.

Perhaps the Pokemon Go! phenomenon has some meta-goals. There's some reason to suspect that Pokemon Go, with it's capability to record what is in your phone camera's viewfinder and track your GPS at the time, is doing quite a bit of complicated cloud processing to piece together some conclusions about the activity of the player.

What I set out to find is an explanation for these photos in which the "PokeSpots" (noteworthy points of interest on the map where players experience accelerated gameplay), which are usually based on various monuments or public parks, can sometimes be descriptively inaccurate. This is in such a way that reminds me very much of research I've done in my machine learning courses.

It's curious because the statuette of a stereotypical Italian baker is perhaps similar to the Statue of Liberty in some abstract ways, but to no human would this appear to be the Statue of Liberty (or at least I would think not). Therefore, the question remains, how did this happen? Did someone in development of the app tag this incorrectly, or similarly did the Google Maps data the app uses could be in some way imperfect? Both seem likely however, I think I know what happened.

This is similar to the research behind the internet-infamous captcha's dual purpose. I believe that, while Pokemon is explosively popular, the game is also using phone cameras to understand the details in the world around us and train a computer to understand objects using an enormous dataset. This is incredibly useful in our still-evolving artificial intelligence research. As relatively easy as it is to automatically tag images with a computer algorithm, things go wrong and inaccuracies pop up that computer scientists everywhere are eager to correct. A little known fact about the Google car is that it cannot tell the difference between the sun or a red light on many occasions. It's not hard to imagine how this sort of minor error, that a human is unlikely to make, would cause serious catastrophe when unchecked by a automated car.

This is why it's an important, lucrative, and useful problem to solve with computers. Image and visual recognition systems that deliver good results are important in applications like fraud, check depositing, cancer/medical research, etc. Many professionals in the field of computer science, networking, cloud services agree that in many situations distributed computers like our phones are the best option these days. Computational problems become things that our handhelds can tackle due to such ready processing power. Delocalizing the efforts to crack down on a serious quandary increases the speed at which we solve it by many factors.

Since this app has so many people outside meeting each other, in the sun, when perhaps they would have been inside... it's hard to see something wrong with it (other than social media being absolutely bombarded with Poke-screenshots). Many people have claimed that they feel refreshingly childish since playing the game. It was a let-down to hear that some of the permissions on the iPhone were too liberal but I do feel, based on the evidence, that this is all a part of a larger effort to improve the quality of our lives by taking the mundane scenery around us and teaching it to machines.

I don't think the Google accounts need to be a part of that, so while we can thank Pokemon and Niantic for making the world a better place for now, let's keep our more private emails and data off the table. Okay?


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