The price of Pokemon Go

By now, there are few of you left who have not heard of Pokemon Go, the augmented reality game released by Niantic last week. It has quickly become a global phenomenon, with people young and old physically scouring their towns for cartoon creatures superimposed on various locations through a smart phone app. Players laud it for its creativity, and creators love the popularity: Nintendo's stock jumped 25 percent Monday.

But there's a price to pay for participation in this dynamic and visually stunning world: your personal data.


Anyone who has downloaded software before has come across the lengthy, legalese-filled document called the "terms of service" whereby a user must click "I agree" in order to download and use the software product. To the user, these terms of service are usually seen as a nuisance, blocking them from immediate access to the latest and greatest mobile app. However, to the companies — and the lawyers who draft the terms — this document is essential. These carefully crafted and highly specific rules govern the relationship between the company and the person using its app.

Taking a look at the Pokemon Go terms of service and privacy policy (found online and in the app under "Settings"), any user who wants to throw a Pokeball not only grants Niantic access to his or her location information, camera and G-mail account (if you sign in through Google), but also gives the company carte blanche to do whatever it wants with any information it gleans while you are accessing the game, as long as that use in is connection with the Pokemon Go game. The language: "You grant to Niantic a nonexclusive, perpetual, irrevocable, transferable, sublicensable, worldwide, royalty-free license to use, copy, modify, create derivative works based upon, publicly display, publicly perform and distribute your User Content."


Although Niantic says it's not currently reading your email — claiming in a statement that "Pokemon Go only accesses basic Google profile information (specifically, your User ID and email address) and no other Google account information" — its terms of service, like many other companies', are broad enough to make the possibility a reality should Niantic choose.

For users who've already signed up through a Google account and are concerned, you can revoke permissions through your Google security page. And of course, for some users, granting such access is of no concern. Providing data can help Niantic improve the game in order to make the augmented reality feel all the more real. However, rising Pokemon masters should beware. Although the game is not yet tailored to incorporate consumer marketing and synergies with retailers that will pay top dollar for player's precious data, instinct suggests this is a potential path the Pokemon Go game could take. Pokestops could easily be sponsored by a particular business, or the purchase of a product could yield benefits within the Pokemon Go game. And the more information a retailer has on you, the user, the easier it will be for them to tailor those offerings within the game.

Indeed, the terms of service account for this kind of flexibility as Pokemon Go evolves. The terms also explain that they can be modified at any time, and continuing to train at Pokemon Gyms and throw Pokeballs after that modification means you agree to the new terms.

This is the new reality in terms of service for online apps, even when those apps send you out into the real world to collect virtual prizes. And just as it's wise to be aware of your physical surroundings while playing such games, it's also wise to be aware of what you might be giving up.

Gabriella E. Ziccarelli is an intellectual property attorney at Blank Rome LLP in Washington, D.C., with previous experience working in-house at tech companies in Silicon Valley; her email is