Niantic CEO Has A Spying Skeleton In His Closet

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It's barely been a month since Pokemon GO started rolling out to select markets and the augmented reality (AR) app is already talked about in the context of the biggest gaming phenomena of the decade. However, certain privacy concerns regarding the popular mobile game have already been raised and some older relevant stories have once again started resurfacing. Namely, some concerned parties are reminding the public that John Hanke, the CEO of Pokemon GO developer Niantic Labs has already been at the heart of some sizeable privacy scandals.

Namely, after Hanke's CIA-funded geographic imagery company Keyhole got acquired by Google in 2004, the American entrepreneur went on to head the tech giant's Geo division for years and soon became the main man behind every map-related endeavor Google was conducting in the second half of the last decade. By far the most popular such project was Google Street View which has successfully digitized much of the world's views with Google's special cars full of cameras. While Google's digitization efforts yielded numerous positive results – one of which is Pokemon GO which heavily relies on that data – they were also at the center of the biggest privacy scandal of 2010. Namely, it turned out that the Street View cars were collecting all traffic from unencrypted wireless networks all around the globe. The so-called "Wi-Spy" scandal was found illegal in numerous countries around the world but mostly resulted in insignificant fines such as the $25,000 the FCC issued in 2010. However, to this day, there's still an ongoing federal class-action case against Google initiated due to this spying and it currently isn't looking good for the Mountain View-based tech giant.

After the truth surfaced in the media, Hanke denied any knowledge of the Wi-Fi spying Street View cars were conducting and shifted the blame to Google's mobile division despite the fact that it was the vehicles of his division which conducted the spying. Furthermore, while the US government didn't give much thought to Google's mobile division, it did conduct a large investigation into Hanke's very own division regarding this issue. Google soon tried to shift the blame to a single engineer who was allegedly conducting "an experimental Wi-Fi project". It wasn't until 2012 that the company finally admitted that the said engineer wasn't acting on his own and has discussed his spying code with at least several of his superiors.

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This was and still is a huge issue because of the fact that Google's cars were swallowing all of the unencrypted Wi-Fi traffic in their vicinity, and not just general information such as names of wireless routers. In the end, it's estimated hundreds of thousands of Wi-Fi users all around the world had their data stolen. While none of this directly incriminates Hanke, critics have recently been extremely vocal about the fact that he has at the very least allowed for a large-scale spying operation to happen right under his nose, voicing their concerns about a similar thing happening to Pokemon GO.