[IWAR] PRIVACY gamers' personal info copied

From: 7Pillars Partners (partnersat_private)
Date: Thu Apr 23 1998 - 10:08:34 PDT

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    Online gamers fume over information gathering
     Mercury News Staff Writer 
     A computer gaming company's admission that it had copied personal
     information from consumers' computers via the Internet has set off
     howls of outrage and panic among users and civil libertarians. Experts
     say the incident underscores the ease with which information stored
     on a home computer can be vacuumed up by anyone connected to
     the same computer by a network.
     Blizzard Entertainment officials
     said that, under rare
     circumstances, the company's
     computers would surreptitiously
     reach out to take personal
     information from computers
     running the company's Starcraft
     game, chiefly the users' names
     and e-mail addresses.
     The company says the
     information was gathered to
     resolve a specific technical
     problem during a seven day
     period this month, was not
     saved, and the company has no
     plans to do anything like this in
     the future.
     Privacy advocates say they are
     appalled, but not surprised.
     While many gamers are enraged,
     a few approve of the technique,
     which they say was probably
     developed primarily to nab
     pirates who illegally copied the
     Starcraft software. Some gamers
     simply could not believe the
     news. Told of the situation by a
     Mercury News reporter, John R.
     Osmon, a business analyst with
     Dell Computer Corp. in Austin, let out a stunned, ``No way.'' Asked
     how he felt, he said, ``Violated. This is the worst invasion of privacy I
     can imagine.''
     Blizzard, for its part, says it meant no harm, and only used the
     information to contact users to help them solve the problem. ``If in an
     effort to resolve technical support issues, we upset some of our
     customers, that clearly wasn't our intent, and we apologize for that,''
     said Susan Wooley, the Irvine company's public relations manager.
     While the type of data collected was not especially sensitive, the
     incident illustrates how easy it is for outsiders to rummage through
     information stored on a computer connected to a network.
     These days, home computers often contain data about finances,
     medical treatment, and family issues, facts that in the wrong hands
     could destroy marriages, careers, and even lives. Many users fail to
     recognize how easily someone can collect such information through
     programs designed to probe the files of a connected machine.
     Encryption technologies, which can make data appear as gibberish to
     an outsider, could help with the problem. But U.S. restrictions on the
     export of powerful encryption technologies have crippled the
     encryption market worldwide and made it impossible for computer
     and software vendors to agree on a universal standard; such software
     must be purchased separately by most consumers.
     Starcraft is a realtime strategy game set in outer space and played on
     desktop computers. Like many of today's games, it offers players the
     option of going head to head against opponents via a computer
     network. Many play on informal gaming networks. But a popular way
     for users to play is via Blizzard's Web site, Battle.net. It was at this
     site that the company programmed its computers to retrieve
     information from some gamers, after a few users had problms logging
     into the system.
     As does much of the software shipped today, Starcraft comes with
     ``CD Key,'' a unique alphanumeric sequence that marks the user's
     copies as original. If two copies of a CD Key are in use, one of them
     is invalid. Shortly after Starcraft showed up on store shelves March
     31, some users complained that they were getting error messages
     about their keys from Battle.net, to the effect that someone else was
     already using that key.
     Blizzard technicians weren't exactly sure what was going on,
     according to Wooley. ``We didn't know if we had some kind of
     manufacturing problem, or if there was something else,'' such as users
     of illegally copied games logging in to play, she said.
     So for seven days, whenever anybody had trouble logging on to
     Battle.net, the company scooped up information from various
     ``registries'' in the Windows 95 operating system. In addition to
     identifying information in Windows itself -- most users dutifully type in
     their name and corporate affiliation upon installation when the
     software asks for it -- Blizzard quizzed the e-mail functions of a user's
     Web browsing software, like Netscape Communications Corp.'s
     Communicator or Microsoft Corp.'s Internet Explorer. Such
     information identifies the user and provides an e-mail address.
     Wooley insists that the system was not set up to detect or deter
     piracy, but to discover exactly why people were having the problem,
     and to give the company a way to immediately contact users who
     were having difficulties. ``We viewed it as a technical support issue,''
     she said.
     The data showed that, while piracy was indeed part of the problem,
     completely innocent users could also get hung up if someone had
     simply purchased a CD, played with it, and returned it to a store,
     where it got a fresh coat of shrink wrap and was resold to an
     unsuspecting consumer.
     The controversy has clouded the future of what was expected to be
     one of the best selling titles of the year. Blizzard has already shipped
     600,000 copies of the game to U.S. stores, and another 400,000 to
     other countries. In the first week of April, Blizzard says it was best
     selling piece of software on the planet.
     Many gamers say they were shocked when they heard the news
     about the information gathering. ``This seems very Big Brotherish,''
     said Kelly McCollum, a gamer in Washington, D.C. ``I'm really
     surprised that they would do something like that. They have such a
     good reputation.''
     Most seemed pleased that the company had apologized. ``Well, that's
     good at least,'' said Mikael Klasson, a Swedish programmer, during
     an interview via the Internet. ``Although they shouldn't have done it in
     the first place. I really don't think there's an excuse for it.''
     Similar incidents have arisen in recent years, with some computer
     ``shareware'' informing its creators via the Internet if a user never pays
     for it. Microsoft was savaged when users discovered that very early
     versions Windows 95 sent portions of the registry to company
     computers to aid in diagnostics. But this latest incident may be the
     most widespread of its type by a mainstream company ever
     Some critics say it was the implementation of the policy that's
     troublesome. ``Let's assume that the only information transmitted is
     just essential to solve this problem. The sin is in not disclosing this up
     front to users.'' said Robert Ellis Smith, publisher of Privacy Journal, a
     monthly newsletter on technology and its impact on peoples' privacy.
     ``The remedy is full disclosure.''
     But others warned that the brave new world on the horizon will be
     riddled with such hazards.
     ``I think this is going to serve as a warning to a lot of people who
     have sensitive material on the computer, because it's really open to
     invasion by a lot of possible players,'' said Barry Steinhardt, president
     of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. ``Many people overestimate
     the amount of privacy they have on a computer. In some ways, this
     kind of trespass is extraordinary, but the truth is, we should not be

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