Has Pokemon GO robbed our privacy and made it online?

Photo: Bloomberg (South China Morning Post, 2019)

Pokemon GO is an augmented reality mobile game produced by Niantic with cooperation of The Pokemon Company, a company that focuses on Pokemon related products and is owned by Nintendo. If you don’t know about Pokemon GO, check out the video below to get a quick introduction on it. The mode of Pokemon GO had provided a transformative effect to the internet world. By making downloading the game, Niantic is transforming players’ mobile phones into sensors in collecting data. In this essay, I discuss why augmented reality technology and its byproducts are taking away the publics’ privacy from them. In this essay, I will first discuss the history of Niantic as a pioneer in this industry. I will later move on to exploring the use of AR in Pokemon GO and critically analyze how the company, through this game, is collecting public data.

POKÉMON GO – What You Need to Know – YouTube

What is AR and how it is used in games?

Before I go ahead, it is important to look at the use of augment reality technology in the gaming industry revolution. Augmented reality refers to the technology combining the real-world environment with computer generated information. Augmented reality is a new example of casual combination of virtual and real happen all the time. (Rhodes, 2019) Different combinations have fulfilled our lives, for example, movies and novels are virtual concepts expressed by image, sound, and words. Figure 1 has provided a diagram of new mediation. (Rhodes, 2018)

Fig. 1 Diagram of new mediation (Rhodes, 2018)Fig. 2 Virtual Pokemons above reality (Photographer: Stig Stasig)
Fig. 1 Diagram of new mediation (Rhodes, 2018)
Fig. 2 Virtual Pokemons above reality (Photographer: Stig

Mark Pescu defines Augmented Reality as a technology of surveillance, networked surveillance. (Pescu, 2020) That is because of the working mechanism of augmented reality. As we can see in the Figure 1, AR is closer to our senses. By capturing the environment around the players by using cameras and locating players by GPS systems included in modern mobile phones, AR technology can gather data collected by our mobile phones. Then how did businesses come up with this transformative idea of collecting data by turning mobile phones into sensors?

The history of augmented reality and its pioneer, Niantic

To talk about Niantic, the man called John Hanke, the founder must be introduced. Hanke has co-founded geospatial data visualization company Keyhole at the year of 2001 and became its CEO. (Shute, 2017) Keyhole was responsible for providing mapping technology for CNN’s media report during the Iraq War. (Engel, 2014) By presenting its technology in CNN, Keyhole managed to get attention from the young but influential Google at that time. Google then bought Keyhole in stock in 2004 for 35 million dollars. (Mac, 2020) After joining Google, Hanke was responsible for the development of Google Earth and Google Maps. When Steve Jobs announced iPhone for the first time, Google maps was the first of its kind to combine its service with a mobile phone. Since iPhone had rather good chips and bandwidth, iPhone was the first mobile phone which could tell its own position. This combination was innovating at that time. Later in 2010, Hanke was allowed to start on a new unit focusing on gaming inside Google. It was called Niantic, the prototype of the company later. (Mac, 2020) The first game Niantic announced was Ingress Prime. We can see a comparison of Ingress Prime’s gameplay view to Pokemon GO’s in figure below. And in 2016, Niantic released Pokemon GO.

Fig. 3 Comparison of Ingress Prime to Pokemon GO (Hayward, 2016)
Fig. 3 Comparison of Ingress Prime to Pokemon GO (Hayward, 2016)

Current situation of Niantic and Pokemon GO

According to one of the world’s most quoted and trusted sourse for game market, Newzoo, Pokemon GO was able to reach 550 million downloads and made 470 million dollars gross revenue globally in the first 82 days. (“Analysis of Pokémon GO: A Success Two Decades in the Making”, 2016) By Nov 3rd, 2020, Pokemon GO have been downloaded for nearly 600 million times and Pokemon GO players have spent nearly to 4.2 billion dollars. (Chapple, 2020)

Fig. 4 Pokemon GO worldwide player spending (Chapple, 2020)Fig. 5 Pokemon GO’s millennial appeal (Newzoo, 2020)
Fig. 4 Pokemon GO worldwide player spending (Chapple, 2020)
Fig. 5 Pokemon GO’s millennial appeal (Newzoo, 2020)

The composition of Pokemon GO players is presented in the figure below. 41% percent of them are female and players aged from 21 to 35 is up to 56%. Also, a quarter of Pokemon GO players haven’t played any of the top 30 mobile games in the past 3 months. We can see Pokemon GO is expanding its market in ones who are not regular mobile game players. In the existing market of location-based games, Pokemon GO has shown a dominating share as shown in figure 6. Location-based games are not mainstream type of game for now, so Pokemon GO is competing with generally all other types of mobile games. And it is having a good market share as shown in figure 7. By far, Niantic had experienced four rounds of funding, from Pokemon Group, Google, Alsop Louie, Spark, and IVP. In total, it has accepted fund for 470 million dollars. (Crunch Base, 2020)

Fig. 6 Pokemon GO’s market share in LBG market (Deconstructor of Fun, 2018)Fig. 7 Most popular gaming related apps in the U.S. 2019, by audience in millions (Statista, 2019)
Fig. 6 Pokemon GO’s market share in LBG market (Deconstructor of Fun, 2018)
Fig. 7 Most popular gaming related apps in the U.S. 2019, by audience in millions (Statista, 2019)

The business model of Pokemon GO

How does Niantic profit from Pokemon GO since it is a free game to play? The business model for Pokemon GO profiting is mainly in two different parts. The first is in game purchases. Most of the free to play games rely on this mode. These in game purchases usually do not affect key gaming experience. Instead of giving players huge advantage, these purchase in most occasions only provide a convenient way of accelerating or improving gaming experiences. Different from other free games, Pokemon GO limited in game purchases’ impact to free players. Besides in game purchase, Pokemon GO also benefits from businesses for sponsoring and hosting locations in game. According to Niantic, sponsorship has resulted 500 million visits to specific PokeStops.

Fig. 8 Business model of Pokemon GO sponsorship (Created by Ailin Li)Fig. 9 Ads from E-cigarette and vape shops (Photographer: Susanica Tam)
Fig. 8 Business model of Pokemon GO sponsorship (Created by Ailin Li)
Fig. 9 Ads from E-cigarette and vape shops (Photographer: Susanica Tam)

As Paul Tassi from Forbes calculated, Niantic is charging from 15-50 cents per visit to these stops. (Tassi, 2017) After calculating briefly, Niantic may have earned 75-250 million dollars on extra revenue from Pokemon GO’s sponsorship from businesses. These sponsoring businesses includes international big brands like Starbucks and McDonald’s. In 2017, there were 7,800 Starbucks stores labelled as pokestops and gyms in game. (Carman, 2017) Although Niantic is making a considerable profit from sponsorship, this has caused some controversial events. Some E-cigarette shops and vape retailers found a chance to promote, as the figure below shows. This has raised two problems. First, Pokemon GO players includes teenagers have not reach the age to use cigarette-related products. These promotions may have a negative effect toward teenagers. They may encourage teenagers to smoke. Also, according to Mathew Curtis, a clinical associate professor at the University of Southern California, augmented reality has introduced new privacy concerns. She comments,

“As companies try to learn as much about the user as possible to personalize ads to make them more effective, privacy concerns will be a big feature. When the consumer shares the message rather than the brand, authenticity increases, and cost is lowered. AR is considered new and cool, which helps promote any marketing message.”

(Vuong, 2017)

Augmented reality invading players’ privacy

As a rather young technology, existing law has not put augmented reality related products or services into consideration. As mentioned above, augmented reality relies on the view provided by camera and location information provided by GPS system built in mobile phones. This indicates that service providers of augmented reality have access to users’ private information. Actually, within a month of the release of the game, the Electronic Privacy Information Center wrote to the Federal Trade Commission, pointing out existing privacy problems existing in Niantic’s privacy policies and gave advices on regulating Niantic. You can check out the detail on the website of National Law Review.  In short, EPIC points out Niantic is not providing reasons to collect information from users and allowing itself to disclose or sell it as “business assets”. After pointing out these concerns, EPIC required FTC to use its authority to regulate these similar unfair actions on Pokemon GO and other similar applications. (Schlossberg, 2016)

Pokemon GO is not the most threatening augmented reality product or service. In September 2020, Facebook released a demo for its AR glasses, called Project Aria. You may check out the full demo here: Watch Facebook’s full live demo of Project Aria’s AR glasses – YouTube.

In short, Project Aria is a fully armored glasses which can record your view, your hearing, and your position with composition with application on mobile phones. And the most controversial function of it is eye tracking. Project Aria is able to analyze what users are interested by knowing things they stare at. Sharing information with first person’s view is basically sharing everything in your life with glasses on. Although Facebook claims that cloud servers would automatically filter information considered as privacy, it cannot deny that users’ privacies are still being recorded. With past controversial events with Facebook, it is reasonable for the public to worry about their privacy. In 2018, it is disclosed that Facebook had sold millions of users’ personal data to Cambridge Analytica for making political advertisements. (Chan, 2019) Also, Facebook had conducted a massive experiment on affecting users’ emotions by manipulating Facebook’s feeding content. (Kramer, Guillory & Hancock, 2014) Not only Facebook, but all augmented reality firms are collecting users’ privacy we do not know about before. We should be more conservative on sharing our personal information and invoke legislative branches to act on such issues as soon as possible.


With support from investors and the Pokemon IP, Niantic has become the dominator in AR game market. It has brought a new type of internet product into this world, Location-based augmented reality mobile game, Pokemon GO. Its birth is the product of developed communication technology and portable devices technology. Pokemon GO has raised this craze on AR games. However, the public has not realized AR technology’s impact on their lives and privacies yet. Although government’s departments have recognized regulations need to be enforced in order to protect personal information’s safety, they need to respond to such transformative technologies in time so that the risk would be limited to a minimum.



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