Pokémon™ Go? Proceed with caution.

Virtual and augmented reality used to be something from the future, the stuff of fantasy and fiction. That is, until now. Developed by Niantic, Inc. and released in early July, Pokémon Go is one of several new virtual/augmented reality experiences exploding in popularity.

Though this rapid growth is exciting and potentially beneficial in ways other than simply entertainment, there may be reasons we should slow down and carefully consider games like Pokémon Go. Let’s dig a little deeper.

What’s Pokémon Go and what’s “augmented reality?”

Pokémon Go is a free app you can download to your phone. It’s a mobile game, where you find, fight, train and capture creatures called Pokémon. Since the game is map-based and uses your location as provided through your phone, you can find and interact with the game’s creatures in real locations, like a park, a train station or a stadium. Within the app and with your real money, you can buy enhancements to your game experience.

This blend of app and reality is called augmented reality. It’s different than virtual reality in the sense that virtual reality is an experience where you surround yourself in a realistic, but completely unreal world. For example, you’d put on a virtual-reality headset, then see and experience a video game inside the headset. Augmented reality, on the other hand, helps you see the real world in a different way — in this case, through the lens of the Pokémon Go game.

What’s fueling Pokémon Go? Personal Data.

To play Pokémon Go, you have to create an account first. You can either create one with your existing Google sign-in information or with your email. Either way, though, you’ll need to use a map on your phone to play the game. And once you sign in and start playing, you agree to make certain data — your location being the most obvious — available to a variety of companies, including the game maker and map maker.

This is similar to the way many mobile apps and other online services work, especially the free ones. Whether or not you’re comfortable handing over the data the game requires is up to you. If you’re concerned about the personal data you might make available to an app developer or other company, make sure to read their privacy policy, terms, conditions and any other specifics they make available. Pokémon Go provides this kind of information so feel free to read it if it’s something you care about.

Pokémon Go is not good or bad. It’s a reminder.

The purpose of this article is not to say that games or apps like Pokémon Go are good or bad. But Pokémon Go does provide just one more reminder to be aware of how your personal data may be accessed or used online. Some people may stop right there and say “games like Pokémon Go are used by lots of people and are offered by prominent companies I trust. So I’m fine signing up quickly and starting to play immediately!” Others may say something like “I want to learn more about how the game/app works before I sign up.” Both approaches aren’t necessarily wrong or right.

3 precautions you can take to help safeguard your data.

Whether Pokémon Go means go or Pokémon Go means stop, it’s important to take some quick and sensible precautions when it comes to protecting your personal information. Here are 3 key ones:

  1. Look at app permissions. Before or after you’ve downloaded a game or an app, head on over to their page in the app store to check out the kinds of permissions they’re requesting (e.g., use of your phone’s camera, use of your phone’s location).

  2. Log in with eyes wide open. Mobile phones, tablets and other devices are introducing whole new worlds of information, capabilities and adventures. Just be aware that if an app is free, it probably uses your data and it may use the data you’ve agreed to provide it to make money. Again, none of this is necessarily “bad” or “good,” but you should know about it.

  3. Change up your online passwords. One of the ways you can help protect your personal information is by varying the passwords you use to log in online, into apps, and anywhere else. If a thief were to get ahold of one of your passwords, you wouldn’t want them to turn around and successfully try that password to hack into other accounts.

Popular games like Pokémon Go and exciting technologies like augmented reality bring a whole new kind of entertainment and information to our phones. Just make sure you understand, and are comfortable with, who, what, when, where, how and why your data’s being used.