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Al Franken asks Pokémon GO what it's doing with user data

<i>Pokemnon GO</i>'s got America's thumbs back to work. But at what cost?

Pokemnon GO's got America's thumbs back to work. But at what cost?

Before last week, the only way to experience an "augmented reality" was with a doctor's prescription or some well-connected friends.

Now there's Pokémon GO, the app sensation that's drawing scads of people out of their homes and offices, into public places and, sometimes, toward each other. (Ewww.) Created as a joint product between Google and Nintendo, Pokémon GO was downloaded at least 7.5 million times in the United States — in its first week. It's the fastest-growing app of all time.

Maybe it's not all fun and location-based augmented reality games. On Tuesday, DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken sent a letter to Niantic, making some pointed remarks about the app's "unnecessarily collecting, using, and sharing a wide range of users' private information." 

Franken's letter comes after privacy stalwarts in the tech community pointed out that Niantic claimed to need "all access" to users Google accounts; later, the app-makers said this clause was just a poorly written oversimplification. Even still, GO players are at the very least giving up their location and unlocking their phone's camera to the folks at Niantic.

Any data collected through playing the game "is considered to be a business asset," Franken's letter observes, and is subject to transfer to any new owner or business partner. 

Franken has a list of seven questions for Niantic about its plans for those business assets, including whether "investors in Pokémon GO" are given access to players' information. Data that has been "de-identified" or aggregated across multiple users can also be shopped to third parties for "a multitude of reasons," and the wary senator wants Niantic to outline more explicitly "the purposes for which Pokémon GO would share or sell such data." 

Al Franken: Careful out there, kids.

Al Franken: Careful out there, kids.

In another question, Franken writes:

According to reports, Pokmon GO also requests permission to access a number of mobile capabilities, including but not limited to the ability to control vibration on a phone, prevent the phone from sleeping, and find contact accounts on the device. Can you explain exactly which features and capabilities are necessary for Pokemon GO to access for the provision or improvement of services? Are there any other purposes for which Pokemon GO has access to all of these features and capabilities?
The Pokemon people were given one month, until August 12, to answer Franken's queries. That should be plenty of time to complete a homework assignment on some of the most basic questions about how it operates. Doing so might clear the air for some of its savvier proponents, or, as this letter references, parents worried about their kids surrendering the right to privacy with the click of a button.

Of course, to provide the answers, the makers of Pokémon GO would have to stop playing Pokémon GO for several hours sometime during the next month. That hasn't been easy for the millions of people who downloaded the app and are quickly slipping away into a reality that is more colorful, and interesting, and far less private. Maybe in more ways than one.