Pokemon Go and Digital Privacy
I never meant to write this article, but I also never meant to wander around London in a three-piece suit chasing invisible monsters. The two however are very closely tied up.
My wife sent me a text yesterday with a quick question "Paul, what's all this about Pokemon Go? Should we let the kids have it?"
The kids in this case are 7 and 5 and like many kids their age have dipped in and out of Pokemon phases - watching the TV show on Netflix, playing a handheld game, and pretending to be Charmander while running around gardens and parks. It seemed, and let's face it, is harmless.
Pokemon is a "media franchise" from Nintendo, and is fairly simple at its heart - an 11ish year old boy who lives in a world where small monsters with "powers" are real and living wild. The trainers capture them from the wild, train them to build up their powers and then Pokemon engage in fights with other trainers Pokemon, leading to winning a tournament and glory, points, prizes and school playground bragging rights. Of course in the TV series many lessons about friendship and honour are learnt, and no one is really hurt.
All in all, I am relaxed about them playing Pokemon to date. A bit too much TV perhaps and not enough running around but it's a simple theme with a generally positive message and has stood the test of time.
Smartphones are great.
I am overall positive about the digital age we have been living in (and for me, working in) since the early '90s. And it has massively, truly, accelerated since 2007 when first the iPhone and then "cloud services" gave the Internet a "Fast and Furious" style dose of nitrous oxide.
There are some amazingly great things going to come out of this digital age. Government services are going to leap forward a generation as they move to digital, we will join hands across national boundaries in ways that customs officials will panic over, but mostly we will benefit from near-continuous monitoring.
The smartphone was the harbinger of near constant, highly detailed tracking of our actions, in the real and virtual worlds. It is possible to track my physical location, track what I ate, what the air was like as I breathed there. Add this to my genetic code, my health records and then do it for every person in the country, in the whole (western) world.
Epidemiology is a fantastic branch of science. It studies the mass of people to look for medical and public health improvements. The most famous one was a cholera outbreak in Mid-Victorian London. A doctor mapped all the cases he was treating, and saw they grouped around one place - a public water tap. He removed the handle and the outbreak stopped, proving cholera was water based, and that mapping people's day to day lives can really help.
Nowadays the doctor can use people's iPhone data to discover which well they drank from. Modern day doctors could map genetics, lifestyle and environment in ways that will reveal more about the causes of diseases. Infrastructure, transport, town planning, school sizes, GP catchment areas, all will could more fine grained, better.
We will come back to this later - but start off with the idea that tracking our daily lives can lead to really good benefits for everyone - if we use the data wisely.
Pokemon Go is what is known as an augmented reality app. You have heard of virtual reality where you put on a clunky looking headset and your eyes see a totally computer generated world. Augmented Reality (AR) is where you look through the screen of your phone and see the real world via the camera, but the app overlays some extra information on top of the image. In a museum it might overlay some notes about the painter. In Pokemon go it overlays a moving cartoon of a Pokemon.
Now, if you as a child want to catch a wild Pokemon, you no longer sit on your sofa computer controller in hand. You go out into the fresh air and walk around. (Good!). The app shows you a map, and you walk to the field, the park, the street corner, and look through the screen - and there is a Pokemon monster hiding behind the lamppost, waiting to be caught by swiping the right part of the screen.
I have played Pokemon Go briefly, and almost every 10th person walking down the street in London's financial district this lunchtime was doing the same. Adults. Slightly shame-faced adults actually. But Adults. This game is going to get big. All the kids will want to play. And to do so they will have to tell Nintendo where they are, where they came from, where they are going.
Dark side of tracking
Can we trust Nintendo with that data? Probably not. A few days ago it was discovered that when signing up via Google, users were asked to hand over "full" permissions. This means Nintendo had ability amoung other things, to read, send and delete users gmail emails. This seems a genuine mistake and has been fixed since, but there is a sad litany of companies collecting data and then not securing it, letting it out into the hands of criminals and others.
On top of which, and most worrying, is the push for social media companies to get you to connect as widely as possible, which suits their business model. And is why most schools ask you not to put photos on other peoples kids on Facebook. Stalkers and angry ex-husbands can connect and once they do moving house (again) is a real pain.
In May 2013, Edward Snowden, an ex-CIA Computer professional stole thousands of top level documents that showed how the governments of the US, UK and elsewhere were systematically gathering, well, pretty much eveything on everyone. The documents that Snowden made available to newspapers showed a mass program of staggering proportions, that sucked in data from Facebook, Google, phone providers, ISPs, that watched websites we visited and emails we sent. For almost everyone globally. They even used submarines to "tap" undersea cables. It was that comprehensive. And it was and is probably illegal, certainly unethical and definitely not something people knew about.
As for the rest of the world, well, Chinese hackers it seems spent a year in the unsecured portions of the Office of Personnel Management. They probably have stolen data, including security clearances, on almost every employee of the federal government, military included.
Can your child be tracked?
This is the million dollar question. And the answer is, yes, of course, they already are, by "everyone". Everyone includes of course the Intelligence agencies of the western world, and the providers of many digital services, ones you know such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Nintendo, and ones you dont like the hundreds of advertising agencies that buy and sell data on anyone living ina digital world.
Access to, and use of, any digital service, gets you noticed, tracked and collected by a vast array of actors, commercial, governmental and criminal. And some individuals. When we give our kids an iPad, or similar, we put a little bleeper on their heads.
The app as it is is fun, and will be a huge hit. Already advertisers are looking at ways they can bend the rules of the game to their advantage. Luring potential customers to sponsored locations seems amusing, but has no-one heard what happened with the Pied Piper?
Trying to monetise apps is already one of the fastest ways to take all the fun out of them, and I suspect this will be the case here. But after all the talk of privacy, we can easily imagine a better game.
One thing I tried was to see how my phone and my friends phone saw the same Pokemon. Sadly the pokemon on each screen seemed unaware it was being watched from two angles. It rather spilt the illusion of a creature "really there". If our two phones could talk to each other they could agree on which way the pokemon was facing and the illusion would be better. Now add in a fight between two pokemon where my friend and I can See the two fighting in real time. And then add in a few friends who can watch giant monsters go at it live right there on the Thames River.
Now thats a great game. But it has a technical requirment. That instead of sending data back to Nintendo, Jaoan, the data needed to decided which way a pokemon is facing only needs to be shared between the phones "watching" the action. You see sending data back to say japan, even at the speed of light has a noticeable delay. But speed of light between phones a few yards apart is imperceptible.
This sharing of data is known as mesh networking - and is generally ignored by mainstream mobile. Partly because it is a hard problem, and partly because centralised services is much more profitable. It is pretty silly if i want to send a facebook message to a couple of friends a street away, for that message to go to servers in San Francisco. Especially as such a message is consider "international", and can be legally monitored by the UK intelligence services even when they are banned from monitoring if I was to make a phone call two streets apart.
But mostly that message would not be recorded by Facebook, and it would not be able to interpret my friendships, my shopping habits, everything else from this signal analysis And that would make Facebook far far far less valuable.
The technology of local communication, is one of the ways that we can reduce this data pollution we are seeing. Alongside encryption, and policy changes we can make the technological world one that has enormous beenfits for us with more reasonable costs.
Privacy and policy
This article is really trying to lay out the new privacy landscape. The Pokemon app is a useful way to explore that space, but it is up to us to decide what we want our future to look like.
So now what?
My first instinct is simple. I am happy for my kids to play this game - but only with my devices and my identity. I am not prepared, I do not have, the tools to manage the data that is out there about me. Until then I want their footprint to be as small as possible.
They can collect Pokemon, and I will watch to ensure they dont walk into roads, lampposts or cow pats. But we will do it outdoors and actually see some fresh air. It should be fun. And thats the main thing.
And as for the wider privacy problem. Well there are technological improvements to watch - local mesh networking and local Wifi. Greater use of encryption. And most improtantly better regulation. We don't want to put the genie back in the bottle, but we do need more opennness and transparency. More tools to see what is held about us and more laws to require it. and In the end we, globally, need to decide what the future should look like. The Clean Air Act of the 1950's helped London escape the thrall of the Victorian smog - but it took nearly two hundred years. We cannot wait that long to control our digital pollution.
(I am writing a book about this stuff. Pop me your email above and I will keep you updated.)