In case you haven’t read enough about Pokemon Go and Privacy
In the past, you knew you’d arrived on the national scene if Saturday Night Live parodied you. While SNL still remains a major force in television, the Onion has taken its place for the Internet set. Just as privacy issues have graced the covers of major news sites around the world, so too has it made its way into plenty of Onion stories. The latest faux news story involves the Pokemon Go craze sweeping the nation like that insidious game in Star Trek: The Next Generation that took over crew member brains on the Enterprise.
“What is the object of Pokemon Go?” asks the Onion in their article. And their response was “To collect as much personal data for Nintendo as possible.” That may or may not have been part of the intent of Nintendo, but the Onion found humor because of its potential for truth. Often times comedians create humor from uncomfortable truthfulness. In a world of Flashlight apps collecting geolocation, intentions for collecting data are not always clear as was Nintendo’s potential collection with their game. Much has already been written about this. So much attention has been focused on Nintendo, it stirred frequent pro-privacy Senator Al Franken to write a letter. I’d like to focus, though, on something that another news story picked up.
The privacy issue I’m talking about isn’t about the collection of information by Pokemon Go or even the use of the information that was collected. The privacy issue I want to relay is something even the most astute privacy professional might overlook in an otherwise thorough privacy impact assessment. As mentioned by Beth Hill in her previous post on the IAPP about Pokemon Go, a man who lived in a church found players camped outside his house. The App uses churches and gyms where player would converge to train. While this wouldn’t normally be problematic but one particular church was converted years ago into a private residence. The privacy issue at play here is one of invasion, defined by Dan Solove as “an invasive act that disturbs one’s tranquility or solitude.” We typically see invasion issues more commonly crop up related to spam emails, browser pop-ups, or telemarketing.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this type invasion. In order to personalize services, many companies subscribe to IP address geolocation services. These address translation services translate an IP address into a geographic location. Twenty years ago the best one could do would be a country or region based on assigned IP address space in ARIN (American Registry for Internet Numbers). If your IP address was registered to a California ISP, you were probably in California. The advent of smartphones and geolocation has added a wealth of data granularity to the systems. Now, if you connect your smart phone to your home WiFi, the IP address associated with that WiFi could be tied to your exactly longitude and latitude. Who do you think that “Flashlight” application was selling your geolocation information to? The next time you go online with your home computer (without GPS), services still know where you are by virtue of the previously associated IP address and geolocation. One of the subscribers to these services are law enforcements, and lawyers and a host of others trying to track people down. Behind on your child support payment? Let them subpoena Facebook, get the IP address you last logged in and then geo-locate that to your house, to serve you with a warrant. Now that’s personalization by the police department! No need to be inconvenienced and go down to the station be arrested. But what happens when your IP address has never been geolocated? Many address translation services just pick the geographic center of where what they can determine, be that city, state or country. Read about a Kansas farm owner’s major headaches because he’s located at the geographic center of the U.S. at http://fusion.net/story/287592/internet-mapping-glitch-kansas-farm/
Ignoring the physical invasion in religious institution’s space for one moment, one overriding problem in identifying this issue is that it is rare. Most churches simply aren’t people’s homes. A search on the Internet reveals a data broker selling a list of 110,000 churches in the US (including geolocation coordinates). If the one news story represents the only affected individual, this means that only approximately 1/100,000 churches were actually someone’s home. If you’re looking for privacy invasions, this is probably not high on your list based on a risk based analysis.
There are two reasons that this is the wrong way to think about this. First off, if your company has millions of users (or is encouraging millions of users to go to church), even very rare circumstances will happen. Ten million users with a one in a million chance of a particular privacy invasion means is going to happen, on average, to ten users. The second reason that this is extremely important to business is because these types of very rare circumstances are newsworthy. It is the one Kansas farm that makes the news. It is the one pregnant teenager you identify through big data that gets headlines. The local auto fatality doesn’t make the front page but if one person poisons a few bottles of pills out of the billions sold then your brand name is forever tied to that tragedy. Corporations can’t take advantage of the right to be forgotten.
Assuming you can identify the issue, what do you do? Despite the rarity of the situation, the fact that it doesn’t involve information, it isn’t about marketing, it isn’t about your customers or users of your service, and, on it’s face, it doesn’t involve personal data, is all hope lost? What controls are available at your disposal to mitigate the risks? Pokemon Go developers were clearly cognizant enough to not include personal residences as gyms. They chose locations that were primarily identified as public. At a minimum then, they could have done, potentially, more to validate the quality of the data and confirm that their list of churches didn’t actually contain people’s residences. Going a step further, they could have considered excluding churches from the list of public places. This avoids not only the church converted to residence issue but also the invasion into religious practitioners’ solitude. Of course, the other types of locations chosen as gyms still needs to be scrubbed for accuracy as public spaces. However, even this isn’t sufficient. Circumstances change over time. What is a church or a library today, may be someone’s home tomorrow. Data ages. Having a policy of aging information and constantly updating it is important even when it may not be, on its’ face, personal data. A really integrated privacy analyst or a development team that was privacy aware could even have turned this into a form of game play. Getting users to, subtly, report back through in-game mechanism that something is no longer a gym (i.e. no longer a public space), would keep your data fresh and mitigate privacy invasions.
No-one ever said the job of a privacy analyst was easy, but with the proper analysis, the proper toolset and the proper support of the business, you can keep your employer out of the news and try keeping your customers (and non-customers) happy and trusting your brand.