Pokemon Go, a location-based interactive augmented reality (AR) game, has been portrayed as a triumph for video game giant Nintendo. However, it is not entirely Nintendo’s doing. Instead, the idea originated within and was developed by Google’s internal startup, Niantic.
Niantic, in turn, is headed by John Hanke, who before becoming a tech-entrepreneur worked for the US State Department. The Financial Times in its article, “The man who put ‘Pokémon Go’ on the map,” would report:
Mr Hanke, now 49, had spent more than a decade with the search giant [Google] after it acquired his previous company, Keyhole, whose rich digital cartography and satellite images formed the basis of both Google Earth and Maps. For Mr Hanke, who worked for the US Department of State in Myanmar before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area to study for an MBA at University of California, Berkeley, it was his third start-up to be acquired. Just why Hanke’s stint a the US State Department is important is best understood by examining its relationship with Google, the tech-giant Hanke graduated onward to.
Google and the US State Department: A Quick Primer
Google has played a pivotal role in augmenting reality in more ways than one.
Before it was populating the world with virtual Pokemon characters, it helped manipulate public perception during the unfolding US-engineered “Arab Spring” by quite literally renaming streets and public spaces on Google Earth and Google Maps in real-time to psychologically overwhelm embattled governments and their supporters, and give impetus to US-backed mobs and militants.
John Hanke – currently heading Niantic, the developer of Pokemon Go – would have been involved in Google Earth and Google Maps at the time this was happening.
As unbelievable as this all may sound, prominent British newspaper, the London Guardian, would report in its article, “Syria: is it possible to rename streets on Google Maps?,” that (emphasis added):
In their struggle to free Syria from the clutches of President Bashar al-Assad, anti-government activists have embarked on a project to wipe him off the map. Literally. On Google Maps, major Damascus thoroughfares named after the Assad family have appeared renamed after heroes of the uprising. The Arab Spring has form in this regard. When anti-Gadaffi rebels tore into Tripoli last August, the name of the city’s main square on the mapping service changed overnight – from “Green Square”, the name given to it by the erstwhile dictator, to “Martyr’s Square”, its former title.
The Internet giant’s mapping service has a history of weighing in on political disputes.
The Guardian would reveal that while Google Maps allowed name changes to be ‘crowd sourced,’ Google gave access only to certain crowds to do this – for example, China’s population is denied such access. It also reveals that ultimately, Google moderators must approve of the changes.
But even before the “Arab Spring,” Google would play an even more pivotal role – training US-backed opposition groups in New York, London, and Mexico City before sending them back to their respective countries to overthrow their governments.
The so-called Alliance of Youth Movements (AYM) held summits as early as 2008 to prepare opposition groups for the planned 2011 uprising. AYM is a US State Department-run project sponsored by the US State Department and even included video call-ins by then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself.
It is also was sponsored by the State Department’s various subsidiaries including the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) which funded opposition groups upon their return to their home countries. Other corporate and media giants also provided support, including Facebook.
Google was well represented at AYM’s summits. At the 2008 New York summit (.pdf), Google attendees included Vice President New Business Development Megan Smith, Director of New Business Development Gisel Hiscock, and Principal in the New Business Development Team Katie Stanton.
Also in attendance was Jared Cohen who at the time represented the US State Department, but would later end up also working for Google – revealing yet another conflict of interest-ridden, corporate-government revolving door – this time leading in and out of the tech industry.
Cohen’s story further illustrates the incestuous ties between tech-giant Google and the global schemes of the US State Department. The UK Independent in its article, “Google planned to help Syrian rebels bring down Assad regime, leaked Hillary Clinton emails claim,” would report that:
An interactive tool created by Google was designed to encourage Syrian rebels and help bring down the Assad regime, Hillary Clinton’s leaked emails have reportedly revealed.
By tracking and mapping defections within the Syrian leadership, it was reportedly designed to encourage more people to defect and ‘give confidence’ to the rebel opposition.
The article would continue:
The email detailing Google’s defection tracker purportedly came from Jared Cohen, a Clinton advisor until 2010 and now-President of Jigsaw, formerly known as Google Ideas, the company’s New York-based policy think tank.
In a July 2012 email to members of Clinton’s team, which the WikiLeaks release alleges was later forwarded to the Secretary of State herself, Cohen reportedly said: “My team is planning to launch a tool on Sunday that will publicly track and map the defections in Syria and which parts of the government they are coming from.”
Cohen would conclude:
“Our logic behind this is that while many people are tracking the atrocities, nobody is visually representing and mapping the defections, which we believe are important in encouraging more to defect and giving confidence to the opposition.” Interactive tracking applications used to overthrow a sovereign, elected government, hardly sounds in step with Google’s corporate motto of “Don’t be evil.”
The technological successors of such applications – including Pokemon Go – seem just as likely to be abused as the applications that preceded them.
Before Niantic’s Pokemon Go, There Was Ingress
With Google’s cozy relationship with the US State Department amply established, and John Hanke’s history with both, as well as Niantic – the developer of Pokemon Go – the general public’s interest should at the very least be piqued. Though Niantic was officially “spun-off” from Google, it is difficult if not impossible to establish what connections Hanke maintains formally or informally with either of his former employers and what role this new “interactive tracking application” may play in experiments or implementations related to US domestic and/or foreign policy.
But if one’s suspicion has yet to be aroused, they should consider the Niantic AR game that preceded Pokemon Go – Ingress.
It too is an interactive location-tracking application, but its premise was decidedly darker and had less potential for wider public uptake, particularly overseas.
The short trailer for the game includes phrases such as, “Global security could be at risk,” “An actual take over of the mind,” and “monitor the effects of mind hacking…” which may at first seem like nothing more than the ingredients of dystopian science fiction, until users are made aware of Niantic, Google, and the US State Department’s use of the technology the three have already collaborated on.
Pokemon Go is merely Ingress but with a Pokemon theme. It is decidedly more appealing, and its rapid public uptake makes it clear that Google’s decision to approach Pokemon for a means to make their AR technology universal, paid off.
What Could Ingress, Pokemon Go, and other AR Games be Used For?
Since, like Ingress, it seems things like to be hidden in plain view, perhaps the US State Department’s own Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) news service’s article, “Pokemon Go Away: Russians See CIA Plot, ‘Satanism’ In Viral App,” might lend some insight.
The article, after deriding Russian culture and traditions, reports:
…some in Russia have depicted the application as an extraordinary scheme by the U.S. secret services to craftily enlist millions of people across the world to photograph and film hidden, out-of-the-way places.
“Imagine that the ‘little creature’ in question doesn’t appear in some park but on a secret site where a conscript or other soldier takes and photographs it with his camera,” state news agency RIA Novosti quoted Aleksandr Mikhailov, a retired major general of the Federal Security Service (FSB), on July 15 as saying. “It’s recruitment by one’s own personal desire and without any coercion. This is the ideal way for secret services to gather information. And no one takes any heed, entertainment is fashionable after all.”
While the active use of Pokemon Go as some sort of implemented tool is always a possibility, it is also likely that it is an experiment or stepping stone toward much wider uptake in AR technology and tools the US State Department would like potential armies of opposition mobs and militants to familiarize themselves with before deploying more useful and dangerous applications.
Organized mobs or militants being able to collectively see something in a specific location, that a targeted group or government cannot see, may have have strategic value.
Also, behavior modification is already a well-studied scientific discipline. The ability to bring the game out into the real world, offers a whole new dimension to manipulating and training the minds of others.
Image: Yelp’s augmented reality message service allows you to place messages at any location visible through your device or another authorized device’s camera only, or view publicly available messages such as exact location of a restaurant, with a virtual sign visible through your camera.
As with all technology, AR is ultimately neutral. It is up to people to use or abuse it – for good or for bad. Most importantly, it is up to people to be responsible enough to understand the technology they use, who is behind it, and what dangers may exist to both themselves, and their community.
For governments and policymakers, it is their responsibility to study the potential opportunities and threats that exist with the use of such technology, both by state and non-state actors.
Considering the pedigree of Niantic and the rapid uptake of Pokemon Go, it would be most unwise to let the fact that the technology is packaged under disarming cartoon characters to cause a very real potential threat to go unnoticed. It would be equally unwise for each nation’s populations to be left vulnerable for the next “upgrade” of the US State Department’s regime change program.