For PlayStation Network users, this past week has been a harrowing one. The security breach and subsequent dismantling of the online network was a huge blow to Sony, which prided itself on being able to provide the service free of charge and expand into sales, downloads, and everything else synonymous with a next-gen online network. This past week's events, however, prove that these networks are fragile and have everyone asking the question, "What is next?"
What would happen if World of Warcraft were down for a week -- not due to some prescribed downtime or voluntary upgrades, mind you, but a comprehensive security breach that affected every single member of our online community? From the PlayStation Network incident, we can see the hostile environment that these security breaches foster, from political ramifications to financial consequences and even legal trouble. Shall we muse about the stability of online networks?
The times we are forced not to play
Downtime happens for any network, right? It's part of the maintenance of said network or the general chaos of things, manifested by a failure that pulls down the network. Amazon's EC2 web hosting service had a rough time last week, running popular internet destinations like Reddit and Foursquare off the web for a limited time. Even on Amazon's cloud computing system, 100% uptime network availability was still at risk.
World of Warcraft's server architecture has downtime every week when the game is taken down for maintenance, repair, and diagnostic work. In fact, this type of downtime has been a staple of the MMO genre for a good, long while. It comes with the territory; historically, MMOs have a vastly larger number of people connecting to their servers. As we move into an age when every game has some type of online component or matchmaking, the landscape begins to change.
Back when World of Warcraft first launched at retail, the servers were utterly destroyed. We picked Frostwolf as our first server based on some very random and obscure selection process that I don't even remember fully to this day. Alignment of the planets, letters in the alphabet -- you name it, it was part of the server selection process. I think we even had an augur in my house.
Our selection would prove unwise, as Frostwolf was one of those servers plagued with troubles. Blizzard's benefit is that everyone connecting to WoW is doing it for the same reason -- to play WoW. When Frostwolf and other servers hit the proverbial pavement and the game was fairly unplayable for many, Blizzard easily and swiftly credited players with extra game time to make up for the problems. If WoW went off for a week for any reason, Blizzard could "make us right," as it were, with giving us that week for free.
The problem with PSN is that not everyone is logging on to do the same thing, play the same games, or purchase the same digital goods. The number of remedies are endless. Of course, WoW's numbers are not PSN numbers, but the principle is the same; the nature of the remedy, however, is different. Blizzard can give people the one commodity that it provides -- game time. What will PSN do for its users, customers, MMO subscribers, and more?
The data breach on Sony's end is bad. Real bad. We don't really know to what extent, but it's up there. It was reported that the first class action lawsuit has been brought against Sony because of the data loss and breach, with the potential for more in the future. Filed in California, the class action suit alleges that all 77 million PSN customers were harmed after Sony failed to secure their data and financial information.
Lawsuits are the end of the line when you're looking to be compensated for your loss -- rather, I should say that winning a lawsuit is the end of line in remedy-seeking. Filing the suit gets you on the radar and forces the other party to take notice and defend. Sony is on notice.
How catastrophic would the data breach have to be to bring Blizzard into the sights of a class action suit? Blizzard has already been the target of the community's ire over the Real ID fiasco in 2010, and back in 1998, Blizzard was the target of a class action aimed at pre-Warden snooping on StarCraft to keep cheaters off of Battle.net. Because of the limited number and nature of the services that Blizzard provides, a class action would never become as large in scope as the fight against the PlayStation Network will be in the coming months. Our data, however, must be protected.
Politics and games are always strange bedfellows, mostly because the generational gaps and divides between gamers and politicians have been present for many years. That is changing, however. Younger politicians entering office have spent their childhoods playing video games, and it's starting to show.
Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut issued a letter to Sony discussing the information breach and lambasting them for not being more open with communication relating to the attacks on the network. Just the fact that a U.S. senator even understands the gravity of a data breach this size from what would have years ago been dismissed as "one of those game things" is remarkable to me. These are customers and patrons of a service who deserve the same protection and respect as consumers of any other type of service.
There are WoW players in government -- a good number, in fact. It makes me a happy player to know that there are people in my government who understand the serious nature of data on the internet and the security that is an imperative part of the equation. Hopefully, Blizzard will never have to receive a similar letter from a senator, but to be honest, I'd rather have a letter from a senator who understands the nature of the problem then "get your internet tubes fixed, Warcrafts Worlds or whatever."
Our networks are fragile and will be fragile as long as people know how to disrupt them. We still don't know who is responsible for the Sony data breach. What we can learn from all of this, however, is that personal data and financial information, while usually just tossed around from site to site without a care, can still be a hot-button issue. You hand your credit card to a waiter at a restaurant all the time, right?
Surprisingly, I don't think World of Warcraft's biggest problem with hackers is data integrity. I don't have the data to back it up, of course, but I would suspect more people making money off of WoW are doing so because the service actually runs opposed to trying to bring it down or compromise users. However, the one big caveat to that is the credit card fraud that is perpetrated by gold and item sellers. The X-53 rocket, for instance, is usually sold to players using stolen credit cards to pay for game time.
In the wake of the PSN debacle, just be safe. Keep your financial information secure, and use only sites you trust. Hopefully, Sony can make good on its troubles, especially for those MMO players out there without access to their games and the financial information now compromised. As for Blizzard, I think the lesson it takes away from the events of last week is to be up front immediately with the information of a breach of information leak. Fast, open response is key.
This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at firstname.lastname@example.org.