Category Archives: This Week on the Internet

Privacy – A right to GO?

Ed. Note.: This post, by Ashwin Murthy, is a part of the NALSAR Tech Law Forum Editorial Test 2016.

For centuries rights have slowly come into existence and prominence, from the right to property to the right to vote and the right against exploitation. In the increasingly digital world of interconnection, the latest right to gain immense popularity is the right to privacy. This right entails the right to be let alone and more importantly the right to protect one’s own information – informational privacy. Thus armed with the right to privacy, one can limit what information others have access to and may use, and thus what information corporations might have or what is up on the Internet. This right to privacy comes in direct contact with applications downloaded on phones, which often ask for permissions to various information on the phone – a device which already possesses a great deal of information of the owner, including the location of the user, their phone number, their emails, their chat conversations and their photos. Applications often ask, either explicitly or in their terms and conditions, for permissions to access varying degrees of the information on the phone, sometimes in a rather unexpected fashion (such as a flashlight app asking for permissions to location), and more recently these apps have been singled out for their questionable privacy settings.

            The latest app to come under fire for its privacy settings is Pokémon GO, an Android and iOS game that took the world by storm, being downloaded over 100 million times by August. The game is an augmented reality game that allows people to catch Pokémon in the real world through synchronous use of the phone camera and location detection. With such popularity, the app was inevitably scrutinised for its privacy settings, especially since it appeared that Pokémon GO was given full permission of the owner’s account. Adam Reeve, a former software engineer at Tumblr, was the first to cause a commotion when he wrote a post detailing all the information the app supposedly had access to. Niantic, the creators of Pokémon GO, later stated that this was an error and the app only accessed basic account information for logging in and in fact could not access information in applications like Gmail or Calendar, later confirmed by security developers. While this was clarified and fixed by Niantic, there were many who were still sceptical, losing trust in not just Pokémon GO, but also in apps in general.

            This sceptical perspective is however what is required to prevent apps from unduly gaining information, particularly those created by the more unsavoury companies who are less scrupulous about their privacy setting, to the point of intentionally trying to get far more information than what was expected from such an app. Pokémon GO, with its shady privacy settings and thus ensuing headlines of hysteria, was merely the catalyst to this questioning as to why such permissions are in fact required by many apps. While it turned out that Niantic did not in fact have very much access to the information people suddenly thought it did, Pokémon GO, by its very nature of using the camera and location services of the phone, potentially has access to far more information than what would be desired, to the point where it has been speculated that the app could be used for spying purposes. While such speculations remain conspiracy theories, the existence of these conspiracy theories is important in itself. Security and governmental agencies are increasingly attempting to access and store the information that such apps and companies themselves have access to. An intelligence agency, if working in tandem with a Niantic, could easily just make Pokémon appear in the house and thus have an interior view of the house through the owner’s phone camera. Niantic’s privacy policy, among other things, states that it may collect and store information about the owner’s location – information that is almost too easy to use for less than noble purposes, and is just one of many apps that can do the same.

            While of course many consumers may not have a problem with these applications having access to such information, they must first have an awareness that these applications actually do have access to all of this information when they are downloaded. Consumers are often content to merely accept the terms and conditions of an app without reading them. The scope for abuse of privacy is almost unparalleled. For there to be a change, the sceptic atmosphere that Pokémon GO accidentally created is needed, and not just for the short period of time that it existed in the wake of Adam Reeve’s post. Currently there is almost zero awareness of the degree to which applications can access and store private information, especially when the privacy policies and terms and conditions are not read or are incomprehensible. The publishers and creators of apps and other such software must be made to disclose explicitly what access they have and what information they can see/store/use. A high level of scrutiny from the consumers would ensure this, especially in the dearth of laws that exist on this specific issue. India has implemented the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2008, adding S.43A and S.72A which deal with implementation of reasonable security practices for sensitive information and punishment for wrongful loss or gain by disclosing personal information respectively. These however are both inadequate and too broad to effectively deal with such issues as apps invading a person’s right to privacy. Further such laws would apply only to the app’s usage in India. Thus creation and effective implementation would still only be on a very localised level, further causing a need for the people to be more conscious themselves.

The privacy settings in Pokémon GO might have been a harmless error from a seemingly benevolent company however most companies are not quite as harmless. Consumers must be vigilant to prevent their private lives and affairs slipping away from them, a task which hopefully Pokémon GO has somewhat equipped them to do.

For Further Reading:

  1. Data Protection in India: Overview – Stephen Mathias and Naqeeb Ahmed Kazia, Kochhar & Co
  2. Don’t believe the Pokémon GO Privacy Hype – Engadget
  3. Pokemon GO raises security concerns among Google users – Polygon