The Sensible Safeguards Needed Now for Pokémon GO

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Unless Pokémon GO turns out to be a relatively short-lived popular phenomenon (and actually even if it is, since PoGo will be but the progenitor of many future augmented reality games and other applications) it appears likely that the full real world impacts of the game were seemingly not completely considered before launch, leading to a growing collection of alarming situations.

There were signs of some sloppiness from the outset, when it was noted that the PoGo iOS app was asking for far more account permissions than was appropriate. The actual privacy risk in this case was minimal, but the mere fact that the app got out the door this way — given the intense concerns about app permissions generally — suggested a possible lack of due diligence in key respects.

While various of the problematic reports we’ve seen about PoGo can be chalked up to user inattention (plowing a car into a tree, driving off a cliff, etc.), many others cannot be blamed on the users alone, per se.

To note but a sampling, these include PoGo being used to attract players to be robbed, a registered sex offender who was supposed to stay away from children using the game to partner with a young child, and very recently, two players who were shot at by a homeowner when they were prowling a residential neighborhood at 1 AM. An array of other trespass-related occurrences have been noted, including players entering restricted areas at a nuclear power plant.

Of broader impact is the swarming of neighborhoods, parks, and other public places by far larger numbers of people than they were designed for — or that local authorities are prepared for — at all hours of the day and night. There are serious public safety concerns involved.

Such gaming activities become especially inappropriate when they occur at locations that are utterly unsuitable for gaming, like ordinarily quiet and respectful cemeteries and Holocaust museums.

Fans of PoGo enthusiastically declare that it’s a great way to meet new people and get exercise. Perhaps. In some locales at least, it seems that players are mostly driving around in their cars to reach designated targets, but we’ll let that pass for the moment.

One suspicion that’s difficult to shake is that seemingly there wasn’t much (if any?) attention given to purging inappropriate locations from PoGo’s ancestor game — Ingress — before deploying them in PoGo. The need for such a purge should have been obvious, given that PoGo would have been reasonably expected to attract far more users than Ingress (as it indeed dramatically has) and would also be far more attractive to children.

Historical side note: Ingress was originally developed at Google (in fact, I was one of its earliest players, I believe while it was still in beta), then spun off to a separate company — Niantic — in which Google holds a major stake.

As I noted above, PoGo is but the beginning of what will certainly be a long line of innovative and important augmented reality mobile apps. And that makes getting the real world implications of this tech in line with real world requirements and impacts as quickly as possible — without stifling innovation.

The most important requirement is to give more control to municipalities and persons who are impacted by these applications and their users.

For example, it doesn’t exactly take rocket science to figure out that sending users wandering around quiet residential areas in the middle of the night is a recipe for potentially dangerous (even lethal) confusion and confrontations, or that flooding a small park with thousands of people at once — without prior warning to local authorities — can easily lead to serious problems.

Niantic needs to immediately work toward providing much better mechanisms for involved homeowners, business owners, municipalities, and other associated entities, to request removal of specific locations from the PoGo location database (much as you can request removal of locations from Google Street View currently). And there should be ways to specify PoGo app operation “curfews” for specific locales as well — especially in residential neighborhoods, or areas with special concerns about the safety of late night visitors.

It is also crucial that accessing this kind of request/control system not require use of the PoGo app itself, nor ideally use of the Internet in any way — given that many affected persons may not even have Internet access. 

Obviously, different areas, regions, and countries will have their own individual attitudes and concerns about participation in the PoGo ecosystem, and we can reasonably expect the sorts of location removal and/or Pogo app curfew requests received to vary widely around the globe.

But it is not appropriate for these decisions to be made wholly by Niantic alone. And unless they and we get a handle on the real world impacts of augmented reality apps in short order, you can be sure that politicians — already expressing concerns about this area — will be moving in with their own “control ideas” — that will likely not be of the form that many of us would want, nor that would protect innovation going forward.

–Lauren–
I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.