TOADY 2016: The Case for Pokemon GO


Claire Gartland, EPIC Consumer Protection Counsel

Each year, the Toy Industry Association gathers to present its TOTY (Toy Of The Year) Awards. In honor of the industry that has led the way in commercializing childhood, CCFC will present its TOADY (Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young Children) Award for the Worst Toy of the Year. From thousands of toys that stifle creativity, lionize brands, and promote screen-based entertainment at the expense of children’s play, CCFC and our partners have selected six exceptional finalists for 2016. Below, EPIC makes the case for Pokemon GO.

Pokemon GO collects a treasure trove of sensitive data about its players, many of whom are young children and teens. Parents should think twice before allowing their children to turn over their location and smartphone cameras in the pursuit of catching ‘em all. 

Niantic, the makers of Pokemon GO, sparked controversy soon after the game’s release when players realized the app requested full access and control over their Google accounts. The company responded to public outrage and admitted it made a serious mistake, but questions remain about how much data Niantic is still collecting on Pokemon GO players and how that data is used and sold. 

Pokemon GO collects a detailed map of its players’ day-to-day lives: where you live, where you go to school, the route you take to get there, and who else was there. And the company reserves the right to keep that data forever and to sell it to advertisers. This puts the safety of our kids at risk, and turns them into dollar signs for big corporations who want to sell them junk food, video games, and more. 

If that’s not concerning enough, the game also has access to the camera on players’ smartphones, and claims ownership to “User Content.” The app allows players to snap photos while playing the game, but these pictures inevitably capture more than just a Pikachu or Squirtle. It’s pretty likely that Pokemon GO now owns pictures of the inside of your living room, Fluffy the family cat, or even you and your kids. Combined with the precise location of where those photos were taken, Pokemon GO now knows a lot more about its players than they imagined. 

This isn’t the first time that Pokemon GO’s creator has been in hot water over a privacy controversy. The game is run by the same man who was at the center of the Google “Spy-Fi” controversy a few years ago. Before starting Niantic Labs and creating Pokemon GO, John Hanke led the development of Google Earth, which includes Google Maps and Street View. The Street View project sparked privacy concerns from the start. Google’s camera-equipped Street View cars crawled street by street around the world, photographing each house and posting the pictures on Google Maps. 

But Hanke’s team took these privacy concerns to a shocking new level when it admitted their Street View cameras were also snooping on the Wi-Fi data of hundreds of thousands of people. Despite Google’s best efforts to deny and conceal these practices, EPIC eventually learned the company was collecting vast amounts of online communications, including entire emails and passwords.

Needless to say, the head honcho at Pokemon GO has a problematic past when it comes to respecting our privacy. Now he has access to our children’s cameras and their step-by-step location when they play the wildly popular game. Should we trust him with this treasure trove of sensitive data? At the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), we think the answer is a resounding no. That’s why EPIC has asked the Federal Trade Commission to step in and protect the privacy of millions of Pokemon GO players. 

We at EPIC take privacy seriously, including the privacy of young kids and teens. That’s why we’ve long advocated for children’s privacy rights and support stronger regulations to protect children’s data online. Pokemon GO is the latest example of why this work is so important. So to Niantic we say: don’t catch our kids’ data.

EPIC is a public interest research center in Washington, DC. EPIC was established in 1994 to focus public attention on emerging privacy and civil liberties issues and to protect privacy, freedom of expression, and democratic values in the information age. 

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Has played before

Would see children running around alone all the time at night.