Back in 2009, a man named Alfred Hightower escaped to Canada from the United States after a warrant was issued for his arrest in Indiana for drug dealing and other charges. The Howard County Sheriff's Department had no idea where Hightower ran off to until a deputy figured out that Alfred Hightower was a World of Warcraft player. After a politely worded request for information about the guy to Blizzard, the detectives had everything they needed to find, alert the proper authorities in Canada, and arrest Alfred Hightower.
Blizzard didn't really have to easily comply with the information request by the Howard County Sheriffs Department but did so in a smooth and cooperative way. Sure, there are scenarios where some information would be compulsory and downright necessary (in the case of national emergency or someone in mortal danger), but this was just some dealer who ran to Canada. There's usually a longer process.
Antisec, the hacker anti-security movement, released a document back in November that allegedly discusses how Blizzard will respond to law enforcement information requests and provide law enforcement with a sort of a primer on World of Warcraft and what to expect from Blizzard's cooperation. What's interesting is that this primer and information packet had to have been created to streamline the process of helping out law enforcement. Someone made this packet to save time, which means there have been plenty of requests for people's information.
Now, we don't know exactly how much this document and primer for law enforcement has changed over the course of the years it has been in circulation or use, but the general gist of the document and its implications probably hasn't changed all that much. We can still infer that Blizzard keep records for the same amount of time and still has the same general attitude toward law enforcement -- a compelling reason by a bona fide law enforcement agency is all it takes for most of your WoW information to be on the table.
Your Information: Not really private
Being online in general is a bad idea if you want to lay low. Playing a massively multiplayer online game is worse -- you are logging into a service using an account you created using your name, address, and credit card information. That already screams "Find me, please!" Remember, these are video games, not bastions of free speech and civil liberties. WoW is not a physical extension of the land of the free -- it is a virtual world run by a corporation that licenses players to access its service.
The relationship that Blizzard has with law enforcement has been an intriguing topic to me because of how pervasive World of Warcraft is to such a large audience and how people still believe that what they do online is still a safe, anonymous place. The internet does nothing but collect and store information about you. Games on the internet do nothing but collect and store information about you and the characters you play.
Why so friendly?
Cooperating with the cops is one of the surefire ways not to get cops angry. Blizzard runs an enormous company with 10 million customers for World of Warcraft alone and has to keep this world running smoothly. A lot of people's lives and jobs depend on World of Warcraft's being a stable, fun, and accessible service. When criminals from the real world enter the virtual world, their motivations for doing so might not be criminal, but their presence can be destabilizing. Let me give you an example.
While Blizzard would most likely be exempt from liability for a lot of criminal activities that are planned through WoW because of carrier laws, imagine the trouble Blizzard could be in if it was found out that a child was kidnapped after two people planned and executed the kidnapping through World of Warcraft -- not "in trouble" trouble, but media attention. How much faith did people lose in Craigslist after you attached "killer" to their name? We don't need a branded World of Warcraft criminal presence for our game's image.
So when the authorities come to Blizzard, all types of information are basically up for grabs if it's an emergency or there's a compelling reason. The law enforcement guide discussed earlier even has a sample language for requests section that can be used to submit information requests. If you look through the document, you can also get a sense of how the information, like chat logs and IP timestamps, are displayed when Blizzard prints them out. This is pretty detailed stuff.
Playing World of Warcraft is almost like stepping foot into the public square and milling about with your friends, as far as information sharing is concerned. I don't see this as a bad thing, especially when accountability on the internet is such a foreign concept to so many people. I don't want to get preachy because it's really not my place to do so, but the anonymity of the internet has been spoiled by so many bad eggs and the weird personality change that happens when people do not know who you are. If you've got something to hide, maybe putting yourself into the public eye isn't the smartest idea.
I probably would feel different about the Blizzard law enforcement guide if there weren't children involved. As privacy is eroded and our lives go from cherishing the public sphere to fearing it on the internet, protecting kids is harder and harder. If my kid were playing World of Warcraft and was being stalked or harassed online, I'd really like Blizzard to take down those detailed records of the people who think it's a good idea to harass children.
As this law enforcement packet pertains to the United States, it hits me hard in the civil liberties center of my heart. I look at this document and I know its purpose, and I know the ramifications of the thing, but I still can't help but feel somewhat violated even though those feelings are totally inappropriate. Of course Blizzard is going to keep information about what you do, and of course it is going to share that information if and when it becomes relevant to a criminal investigation. The information could be subpoenaed anyway. Blizzard is just taking some of the time out of getting those subpoenas by opening up information. That fact does help with the This is unjust! chants slowly rising in the depths of my Californian heart.
What it comes down to is that your information is not private when you're on the internet. We all knew that, and it's a sad, rough reminder sometimes that everything we do is tracked, traced, archived, and available to law enforcement. If you're a career criminal, you shouldn't be alarmed when the feds knock down your door during a Dragon Soul raid. Blizzard isn't going to let its brand be spoiled and its work put in jeopardy because it didn't help out the cops find their next low-life.
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.