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Pokemon Go backlash reflects privacy fears

Avid players of the hit game Pokemon Go seem willing to go to almost any lengths to hunt down its prized animals, hidden around the streets of cities such as London and New York.

Avid players of the hit game Pokemon Go seem willing to go to almost any lengths to hunt down its prized animals, hidden around the streets of cities such as London and New York.

Those lengths include heading into Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC, final resting place for many decorated American soldiers.

That Nintendo, the game’s co-owner, should have kept such sensitive areas off limits seems obvious. Yet, the authorities at Arlington were far from alone in complaining about the “augmented reality” treasure hunt, in which smartphone users track down animated monsters in real-world locations.

“Playing Pokemon Go in a memorial dedicated to the victims of Nazism is extremely inappropriate,” a spokesman for Washington’s Holocaust Memorial Museum said last week.

On one level, this might seem like a minor issue — a lapse of judgment from Nintendo and Niantic, the game’s developer, but one that left little lasting harm.

Yet on another, last week’s mini Pokemon backlash gives a taste of the wider problems we can expect as big technology companies, whose products were once confined largely to offices and homes, become more prominent in public spaces. Augmented reality gaming is a small part of this, although not an insignificant one.

The success of Pokemon Go — last week, TechCrunch reported that the game almost certainly has more daily users in the United States than Twitter — is sure to inspire imitators. This could be a good thing, bringing gamers to play outside, rather than skulking in lounges and bedrooms.

Yet Pokemon and its unfortunate positioning of so-called “PokeStops” also represent a wider blurring of the virtual and physical worlds.

As a result, tech companies such as Nintendo, and more importantly Internet groups such as Google and Facebook, will have to take a more responsible approach to the physical environments in which they operate.

Drone makers are one example. Singapore, where I live, was one of the first countries to bring in rules governing commercial and amateur drone use.

Even so, the machines grow more popular. The other morning, I chanced upon an enthusiast in a park near our home, flying a drone while wearing a pair of goggles linked to its camera. He let me try them on. I could only gawp at the view, as the device zoomed upwards over the trees.

The privacy and safety concerns from widespread drone use are obvious enough, and all the more so if companies such as Amazon introduce swarming fleets of airborne delivery vehicles.

Privacy is a worry in a future of ubiquitous smartphone video broadcasts, through services such as Facebook Live, which shot to prominence for its role covering the attempted coup in Turkey last weekend.

Designers and manufacturers of self-driving cars face related problems. Within a generation, most car travel could be automated, potentially giving companies such as Google and Uber an outsized influence over the way urban areas are run.

A broader trend comes from so-called “smart cities”, in which technology improves the management of infrastructure such as electricity or sewage systems.

The coming era could have significant benefits. Deliveries may arrive more quickly, roads could be less crowded and electricity used less wastefully.

Yet those benefits could just as easily be lost if tech companies do not learn to anticipate the public concerns that will often follow as algorithms, rather than human judgment, exert greater control over towns and cities.

This is especially true for the likes of Google and Facebook. Infused with Silicon Valley’s innovate-or-die sense of self-belief, they have proved especially resistant to worries about their products.

It took Google nearly two years to shelve its Google Glass augmented reality eyewear project after widespread privacy worries.

In all this, Nintendo’s Pokemon is guilty only of a tin ear to cultural sensitivities.

But the larger tech groups are increasingly powerful and generally less accountable than equivalent businesses in other sectors. In almost any scenario, more regulation of their activities is likely.

But a better path could come if those very companies that celebrate “disruption” also learn to anticipate the public unease that their disruptions often bring. Financial TIMES



James Crabtree, on sabbatical from the Financial Times, is a visiting research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

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