BREAKING: You can now report problematic PokeStops and Gyms to the Online Hate Prevention Institute via FightAgainstHate.com

 

Since the launch of pokemon go on Wednesday last week there have been a number of concerns raised about PokéStops and Gyms spawning on private property or sites where increased foot traffic may lead to a risk to public safety. The Independent warns, “The game is encouraging people to turn up at others’ houses and loiter at them – potentially leading to deadly consequences”. The Independent discusses the case of Boon Sheridan whose house, which was previously a church, spawned in the game as a gym.  

Niantic, the company behind the game, is providing a form for users to report problematic PokéStops and Gyms, but for now they say they will “ONLY take reports of PokéStops or Gyms that present immediate physical danger (for example, they are in the middle of a road or on railroad tracks)”. This admission that such problems may exist, and the game will keep running with those problems in place until they get around to fixing them, is an extreme breach of ethics by the developers. It is also ignoring other problems which may increase risks ranging from robbery to terrorism.

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Anything labelled as a church, school, community center, shopping center, park or cemetery on a map is likely to spawn as a gym or PokéStop in the augmented reality game. This can be a real issue when the sites are already sensitive locations and an increase in foot traffic and a loitering public may make the job of security that much more difficult.

Take for example the case of a jewellery store which may happen to be in the part of a shopping center targeted by the game. The store is likely to employ a security guard, but their job will be come close to impossible if the traffic outside the store dramatically increases. Another example is a Jewish school. Following terrorist attacks on Jewish schools overseas, security at Australian Jewish schools has increased in the last few years and schools in both Melbourne and Sydney now employ armed guards. A crowd of random visitors is a distraction these guards don’t need.

The problem can be more than just a distraction and additional security costs. Pokemon Go has already been used to aid in armed robbery in Missouri. There is the potential that those wishing to cause harm or engage in criminal activities will take advantage of the crowds caused by the game to target sensitive sites.

Pokemon Go is created by Niantic Labs, the same company responsible for the augmented reality game Ingress. It was created as an internal company within Google by  John Hanke who previously founded Keyhole Inc which Google acquired in 2004, renaming the company’s core product Google Earth. Where Pokemon Go is creating problems through the automated selection of locations, Google Earth created problems when they company responsible failed to verify data provided by users leading to a flood of propaganda until Google stepped in and made changes to rectify the problem. Niantic Labs was spun off by Google in 2015, presumably in the leadup to the launch of this game.

Technology companies have promoted the benefits they bring to society and largely got away without consequences for their negative impact on society. There needs to be both a stronger sense of social responsibility from there companies and greater accountability when they put people, property and the environment at risk. Harm from technology was never purely virtual and as technology becomes a greater part of our lives and intrudes into the physical world, the risks only increase. 

Recommendations:

  1. Niantic Labs needs to immediately change their form to take all report.
    To prioritise the report they could ask the users to categorise their reports e.g. PokéStops and Gyms is in a location:
    (a) posing immediate physical danger e.g. the middle of railways lines
    (b) where crowds would pose an operational risk to a business e.g. a location needing security guards
    (c) that interferes with the right to quiet enjoyment of private property e.g. the location is someone’s house
    (d) in a location that interferes with the provision of government services or the operation of a business
    They could then address the most urgent category first and apply triage principles. Having a full list is the only way to have an idea of the scope of the problems being caused and to create a full list of issues in order to address them. 
  2. Governments needs to consider regulation for augmented reality to protect public safety, just as they have been doing for UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicle / drones). The technology is not inherently bad, but it must be introduced with more thought for its impact and with clear consequences when that thought isn’t put in place. 
  3. More work needs to be done by the IT Profession to raise awareness of the risk of launching products without greater regard for their potential negative impacts.

If you do find problematic locations which are an immediate risk to life, please report them to the company here. You can also report locations with any of the four problems above to our FightAgainstHate.com reporting platform. We will compile the list and present it to the company.

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