Masses of people wandering around all kinds of improbable places chasing animated cartoon figures on their cell phones are not zombies; they are players in the fast spreading craze of “Pokemon Go,” the augmented reality game which has attracted millions of users since its release at the beginning of July.
However, seasoned intelligence watchers say that far from being just a game gone viral, it has more sinister uses – for instance, as a novel visual espionage system created by one of the world’s top spy agencies.
To play the game, smartphone users have to download the Pokemon Go app (for free) from Apple stores or Google. When the game starts, the smartphone’s video camera and GPS system go into action. The user has to hunt “pokemons” – animated figures in various shapes – that appear on the phone’s screen dodging through real landscapes, such as streets, airports, museums or observation decks atop skyscrapers.
Pokemon Go, whose technology is so advanced that it may revolutionize future marketing methods, is based on figures from a 1990s card game. It was developed by the San Francisco, California-based Nantic which was founded in 2010 as a Google startup by the person who established the mapping firm Keyhole.
Keyhole, which was set up in 2001, was funded by venture capital firm In-Q-Tel that was controlled by the US National Security Agency and acquired several years later by Google. The linkage of these companies to each other, to Google and to the American intelligence agency, leaves little doubt about the real purpose of the game and how the vast amounts of collected data may be used – primarily as a quintessential operational spy tool.
Controllers of the game’s data collection network are also provided with GPS to pinpoint the exact location of millions of users at any given time together with access to their video cameras.
Thus, users of the app will be unknowingly engaging in intelligence gathering with the help of photography from every angle of nearly every location on earth in the course of chasing the pokemons that were released as their prey.
At least one of the features of the game was apparently created under the direction of an intelligence service.
Niantic has given various companies permission to publicize the presence of pokemons around shopping centers, restaurants, museums and other sites. It then becomes a simple matter to spread the word on social networks that a rare breed of pokemons has appeared on the wall of a nuclear power plant in a targeted city. Hundreds, if not thousands, of addicts would head for the new location, clicking their video cameras and GPS systems as they go. This data would be beamed instantly to the monitors of the game’s clandestine controllers.
Nintendo Go and its potential for luring players to high-security and off-limits military facilities also makes it a major hazard in the hands of criminal organizations and terrorists.
A situation in which large numbers of people innocently searching for pokemons with their eyes glued to their smartphones are led into a trap by terrorists can no longer be dismissed as a fantastic scenario.