The CIA, NSA and Pokémon Go

Before heading out to capture Pokémon, you might want to consider the data the game has access to and the history of the company that created the game

The CIA, NSA and Pokémon Go
Credit: Michael Kan

With Pokémon Go currently enjoying, what I would call, a wee-bit-o-success, now seems like a good time to talk about a few things people may not know about the world's favorite new smartphone game.

This is not an opinion piece. I am not going to tell you Pokémon Go is bad or that it invades your privacy. I’m merely presenting verifiable facts about the biggest, most talked about game out there.

+ Also on Network World: The Pokémon Go effect on the network +

Let’s start with a little history.

Way back in 2001, Keyhole, Inc. was founded by John Hanke (who previously worked in a “foreign affairs” position within the U.S. government). The company was named after the old “eye-in-the-sky” military satellites. One of the key, early backers of Keyhole was a firm called In-Q-Tel.

In-Q-Tel is the venture capital firm of the CIA. Yes, the Central Intelligence Agency. Much of the funding purportedly came from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). The NGA handles combat support for the U.S. Department of Defense and provides intelligence to the NSA and CIA, among others.

Keyhole’s noteworthy public product was “Earth.” Renamed to “Google Earth” after Google acquired Keyhole in 2004.

In 2010, Niantic Labs was founded (inside Google) by Keyhole’s founder, John Hanke.

Over the next few years, Niantic created two location-based apps/games. The first was Field Trip, a smartphone application where users walk around and find things. The second was Ingress, a sci-fi-themed game where players walk around and between locations in the real world.

In 2015, Niantic was spun off from Google and became its own company. Then Pokémon Go was developed and launched by Niantic. It’s a game where you walk around in the real world (between locations suggested by the service) while holding your smartphone.

Data the game can access

Let’s move on to what information Pokémon Go has access to, bearing the history of the company in mind as we do.

When you install Pokémon Go on an Android phone, you grant it the following access (not including the ability to make in-app purchases):

Identity

  • Find accounts on the device

Contacts

  • Find accounts on the device

Location

  • Precise location (GPS and network-based)
  • Approximate location (network-based)

Photos/Media/Files

  • Modify or delete the contents of your USB storage
  • Read the contents of your USB storage

Storage

  • Modify or delete the contents of your USB storage
  • Read the contents of your USB storage

Camera

  • Take pictures and videos

Other

  • Receive data from the internet
  • Control vibration
  • Pair with Bluetooth devices
  • Access Bluetooth settings
  • Full network access
  • Use accounts on the device
  • View network connections
  • Prevent the device from sleeping

Based on the access to your device (and your information), coupled with the design of Pokémon Go, the game should have no problem discerning and storing the following information (just for a start): 

  • Where you are
  • Where you were
  • What route you took between those locations
  • When you were at each location
  • How long it took you to get between them
  • What you are looking at right now
  • What you were looking at in the past
  • What you look like
  • What files you have on your device and the entire contents of those files

 I’m not going to tell people what they should think of all this. I’m merely presenting the information. I recommend looking over the list of what data the game has access to, then going back to the beginning of this article and re-reading the history of the company.

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