Is there a big Pokémon Go conspiracy? Probably not

Privacy news
4 mins
Government puppeteer controlling Pikachu.

There can be no doubt about it; Pokémon Go has taken the world by storm. The application has quickly achieved phenomenal success and taken everyone by surprise with its massive and sudden user base.

Taken everyone by surprise apart from the developers of Pokémon Go, that is, who’ve had it all carefully planned for years… kind of.

The story of Pokémon Go has its origins as far back as 2001 when a company called Keyhole Inc developed a program called Earth Viewer, which went on to become Google Earth. John Hanke was CEO of Keyhole Inc back then, but his career progressed, and now he sits at the top of Niantic — the company that developed Pokémon Go.

Pokémon Go Has a Close Relationship with the Government

Hanke has always been close to the US government, working for them in both Washington DC and Myanmar (Burma). Hanke’s connection to the government remained active even after he stopped working for them, and Keyhole Inc was partially funded by In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the CIA.

The investment with Keyhole gifted In-Q-Tel with shares from Google, possibly the biggest information gatherer on the planet (though In-Q-Tel allegedly partially sold these in 2005). It’s not surprising that In-Q-Tel covet such high-tech companies, though, their mission statement reads:

“IQT identifies, adapts, and delivers innovative technology solutions to support the missions of the Central Intelligence Agency and broader U.S. Intelligence Community.”

The CIA Wants to Catch ‘Em All

The CIA’s interest in new technology is hardly surprising, and mapping software like Google Earth is particularly useful for an agency that wants to keep its eyes on the entire globe. Investment from In-Q-Tel is also not particularly rare, and its current ventures span from databases like MongoDB and MemSQL to camera technology developers, like Pelican Imaging or Pixim.

Though you can find Keyhole in In-Q-Tel’s portfolio, Niantic (Developers of Pokémon Go) is not listed. But an involvement, either through undisclosed investment or personal relationships would not be startling, especially since Niantic is located in Arlington, the Virginia county known for its heavy presence of organizations like the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and Booz Allen Hamilton — Edward Snowden’s last employer. But what particular interest would the CIA have in the Pokémon Go app? Honestly… it’s hard to tell.

Pokémon Go Is Different – There’s No Harvesting

The application rather sticks out from the huge number of games and apps available for mobile. As Sara Haider, an engineer at Periscope points out; the app does not ask for access to your contacts, nor does it bully you into inviting your friends. It doesn’t even have any virtual social mechanics.

The app flips around everything we know about online gaming. Instead of staying inside, the player has to go outside. Instead of communicating with others through the app, players of Pokémon Go have no option but to talk to the people around them (there’s no in-game chat app). None-the-less, players are incentivized talk to one another, as the game has absolutely no in-game explanations. People are expected to figure out the mechanics for themselves, then share tips with each other in real life (or at least over third-party forums and chat groups).

So where’s the data harvesting? The camera has not turned out to be the privacy nightmare that it first appeared to be. And while Pokémon Go did originally attempt to access your entire Google Account, this has since been fixed. There’s nothing to stop you signing in pseudonymously with a newly created username, and the augmented reality feature is of no concern as you can simply turn it off. There’s no penalization for switching off the AR, and it may even save some battery.

Are Pokémon Government Friend or Foe?

It’s hard to imagine what the government really thinks of Pokémon Go and there’s little indication the app is actually an organized plot to turn users into surveillance drones, ready-to-be-deployed as a zombie swarm.

Even the location profile from the app seems rather useless, given that people are exploring areas and walkways that they would otherwise ignore. If the app is directing the user, how much does the data really tell us about the user? Not much.

At the very most ExpressVPN can imagine Pokémon Go to be a conspiracy by health insurance companies to get us to exercise more. The financial powerhouses in the pharmaceutical industry might rather see the app banned, as it has been reported Pokémon Go can be an excellent treatment for depression — that’s a lot of pill sales on the line!

Indeed, going outside to hang out at the local Pokéstop, or strolling around your neighborhood to catch Pokémon while talking to strangers about the latest tips and tricks is likely far from the interests of an authoritarian-corporatist state.

Move Along There’s Nothing to See Here

ExpressVPN believes the Government is probably as clueless as the rest of us are when it comes to identifying trends.

Like so many others, governments are doomed to watch as technology changes the way we organize, inform, and entertain ourselves — with the possible exception that those in power have the luxury of investing other people’s money into technology they hope will further their own cause.

So ignore the haters and happy hunting! See you at the Pokégym!

Lexie is the blog's resident tech expert and gets excited about empowerment through technology, space travel, and pancakes with blueberries.