On Wednesday July 13, Ryan, a summer intern came into my studio and started talking about Pokémon Go and how he'd been playing for weeks. He's a wiz with technology, which probably goes without saying and he gave me a tour of the app on his iPhone. The first thing that hooked me was that it's an augmented reality game app, which really wet my appetite. The last time I played around with augmented reality was in 2010 with Second Life. I remember it was a drain on my iMac at the time, but it was interesting to walk through so many different environments and meet up with different avatars. But Pokémon Go is more interesting because it's a free-to-play location mobile game which can be played anytime anywhere.
Ryan and I talked a bit about the Pokémon brand, which I was familiar with and he pretty much grew up on. I asked what year it was developed—apparently it was the late 80s. Ryan told me there were kids out until midnight playing the game in the streets. A day earlier while I was walking my Boston Terrier I met up with my neighbor's kids, around 12 and 8 years old and the older one was holding the phone and her cousins, the twins, were excited, "We're playing Pokémon Go!!!...We have all kinds of things to find." I told them to have fun and their enthusiasm with the digital game made me smile.
After Ryan showed me the game I decided to download the app myself. It took me about 5 times to register to get a username. We were laughing that my names were already taken. I was just about losing my patience with numerous errors stated, when my username was finally accepted. In the next stage I had to sign in with my gmail credentials and I wasn't thrilled with that idea. I had to think a minute about whether I wanted to expose myself once again. As a heavy tech user, my credentials have already been breached by several supposedly well-respected companies. Ryan of course sounded like one of my students when I said I didn't like the idea of not just registering with a username and password, he said, ”At this point we’re all just making a deal with the devil..." Well I'm not fond of this thought process, especially when it comes to hacking, but I laughed and went right ahead allowing the app developed by Niantic to have access to my google account credentials. Red Flag 1. Bad idea, and I knew it at the time, but I had an itch I had to scratch.
I enjoyed choosing my avatar with purple hair, cool backpack and sleek, simple athletic outfit. The other thing is you can buy things for your avatar. Second Life was the same way. I doubt I'll be purchasing things in the app, but I can clearly see how corporations and businesses will benefit in the future from advertising and providing incentives to make their business a PokémonStop. I only wished I had used the Pokémon Go example in a Film and Media course I had been teaching weeks earlier. Instead we looked into Facebook’s user policies, which illustrated there’s very little privacy and we’ve pretty much given the rights to all our content to Facebook. Pokémon Go would have been another interesting experience had it happened during the course, especially because it’s a game.
I LOVED the app. The first day I had to do some errands. While at the grocery store I was looking at the app because I was sure there were a couple of stops where I could get some extra points. Before I asked the teenager behind the deli counter for my chicken breasts, he noticed I had the app on my screen and he asked, "Are you playing Pokémon Go?" I laughed and said yes, and he enthusiastically replied, "We're playing it back here too!” I thought I was going to die laughing. For a minute I thought I was kind of cool connecting as an adult to this young kid and thought how the app had the potential to be a great engagement tool on many levels.
On my first day I walked into a low hanging planter outside a Coldwell Banker office while I was looking down at the app. THUD!! Totally ridiculous. When the app starts up it tells you to be alert and watch where you're going. I'm an adult and I was already having problems. But, it was a lot of fun and by day 2 I had already moved to level 4. Each time I took my walk I played it and liked the idea that kids could learn a little bit of local history by going to the PokémonStops. Even though Pokémon Go could be a huge time suck, I was multi-tasking while exercising and looking forward to getting to level 5 when I could then become a trainer where the real game probably starts.
But, day 2 while playing, suddenly the app would freeze and I couldn't move my avatar. I had to restart the app and play again. I would make one play and then again it would freeze. The next morning I went for my walk and it was having some trouble recognizing stops as well as freezing my avatar. I was pissed. What the hell is wrong? I had zero patience for these errors. How could they? The final time I restarted my app I was really angry that I had a Pokémon character to capture—it was right in front of me and I couldn't move the ball. That was the last straw. I went online and read about different ways to fix the issue on an iPhone. One way was to simply remove the app and re-download it, so that's what I did. I also contacted tech support to resolve the issue and received an email back from them in a few minutes.
The tone of their email showed they couldn't care less about my problem. Their website stated that if you re-installed the app all the game information was saved online. I already had a similar experience with another app I had to reinstall, and when I signed back into the app it had all my saved data. But, once I reinstalled the Pokémon Go app there was no way to sign back in with my username. The app wanted me to register again. Red Flag 2. I googled Pokémon Go app and found out that their servers went down and it was also reported they may have been hacked by some entity named Poodlecorp.
I kept tabs on what was going on, there was quite a bit of news on Twitter, but what I realized about Niantic—the corporation itself certainly wasn't forthright in the support email I received. Clearly their roll-out of the app to other countries crashed servers, regardless of any rumor of a hack. In fact, when it was rolled out in Canada servers were down again. The corporation clearly isn't concerned or is unable to deal with crisis management. As of this writing there are still server outages everywhere. Perhaps in the end it won't matter. Once the servers are back up running everyone will still want to play the game, but it's irresponsible for Niantic (with partners Nintendo, the Pokémon Company and Google) to not to be honest and say there's a problem with the servers and app and tell their users to please be patient. Anyone can understand tech support framed in those terms.
The way Niantic handled the situation sure didn't give me confidence in them and I deleted the app immediately. Then I considered how to protect myself from the potential hack. Since I was forced to use my google credentials I changed my Google account password. One of the problems apparently with the Google registration was that unwittingly it actually forced players to allow Niantic, and potential hackers to use your account to send emails, read emails and get all data in a personal Google account. That's a severe privacy and security breach. Through my research, I found out that Google fixed the gap on day 2 of my user experience, however, again I didn't get the information directly from Niantic even saying it could be a potential problem with the fix instructions. I had to go search for it. Red Flag 3.
What I learned is Niantic isn't concerned at all about customer privacy and security issues and have no idea how to employ crisis management or solid communication practices to inform their players, or "trainers" as they call them. Perhaps youth don't care about those issues, or on the other hand, Niantic doesn’t care about young people’s privacy, but Niantic has the privilege of having a wider audience of adult users as well and they should be more serious and respectful of user's personal information. I'm sure many of the millions of young users aren't worried now. But, what about when they have enough income and property to suffer from identity fraud?
The Internet has become its own economic engine with the proliferation of new technologies and services developed with growing customers everyday as Pokémon Go illustrates. In a capitalist culture, as we move into Internet of Things (IoT), digital wallets and purchasing from mobile devices, ALL companies need to focus on the privacy and security of their users. Developers, corporations and smaller businesses owe their customers the civil right to privacy and protection, especially since entertainment and consumption seem to be more important than the public good. Consumers should demand the right to online privacy and security.
On the positive side Pokémon Go has some helpful mental health benefits to relieve everyday stress and anxiety with a fun game that gets people moving and learning. But, while we try to keep ourselves sane during a time when the media reports nonstop fear, global terrorism, gun violence and political polarization in an election year, it would be nice to not also have to worry about being hacked or having our identity stolen when downloading an app. While I understand the rollout of a new product or service has inherent risks for both parties, companies need to keep consumer privacy and security as their #1 priority. TechCrunch reports that two weeks after the US app launch, Niantic has made in excess of $35 million and surpassed Twitter and Facebook user engagement. It’s unacceptable for consumers to "make a deal with the devil" when using their hard earned money to purchase goods and services on mobile devices. These companies owe it to Americans to fix these issues and fix them fast—before they reap in millions of dollars. For now I’ve experienced one too many red flags from Niantic to download the app again. Instead I’m having fun with Dr. Driving, hoping Apple cares more about protecting my privacy and security than Niantic—but I’m not sure.
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