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StarCraft lawsuit: Privacy and piracy

By Elizabeth Knefel

May 4, 1998
Web posted at: 5:24 PM EDT (1724 GMT)

(CNN) --- Blizzard Entertainment's release of its popular "StarCraft" strategy game was a big event for game fans last month, but some people say the program invades their privacy. The company is being sued for unfair business practices. The suit claims that while a game player is online, the software transmits the gamer's name and e-mail address without their permission or knowledge.

Donald P. Driscoll, an Albany, California attorney filed the suit on behalf of Intervention, Inc., a California consumer group. At issue is a programmed "contaminant" in the game which is supposedly designed to transmit data from a game player's computer when connected to battle.net, Blizzard's Internet gaming site. Driscoll says the connection is made and personal information is transmitted without notification and without the consumer's permission.

Blizzard has admitted it was using an anti-piracy feature of its software to help identify which users are using illegal software. When the cyber-snooping was revealed, the company apologized to customers saying the information gathered would not be saved.

When reached for comment, Blizzard Entertainment issued the following statement to CNN: "We have been informed that a suit has been filed although we have not yet been served. It is the policy of Blizzard not to comment on matters that are in litigation."

"It's going to be a big problem in the future, not just for gamers, but for people as a whole who use the Internet because anytime you buy a program and install it on the computer and allow it to connect you to something on the Internet, you have no way of knowing what it is uploading," Driscoll says. "It's a tremendous invasion of privacy. Somebody figures out a way to go inside your computer and connect your name and e-mail address. My concern is an ongoing one. This problem I think is going to occur time and time again, and it won't always be limited to information like this. If they can upload this, they can upload anything on your computer."

Driscoll's client wants Blizzard to inform buyers of the alleged practice, to offer a full refund or create an update to the game minus the anti-piracy feature to consumers without charge.

Steven Kent, game reviewer and columnist for the LA Times Syndicate, says privacy and piracy are very hot topics.

"People have become extremely sensitive when they discover companies are peeking into the virtual space of their personal computers," Kent says. "Electronic game companies are fiercely paranoid about piracy too. Rumor has it that Nintendo went with cartridges instead of CD-ROM for its N64 console because cartridges are harder to duplicate. It doesn't surprise me that a company like Blizzard, which goes out of its way to offer shareware and network compatible versions of its games, would also create a method of tracking down pirated copies of its games."

Susan Scott, Executive Director of the TRUSTe, privacy initiative says privacy is one of the most important considerations for online consumers. "The user should always be notified of what information is being collected by a particular company or Web site and what that information is going to be used for."

She says there are various ways to do that. In this particular case, a user could have been notified that information was being collected and allowed the opportunity to refuse. Unfortunately, she says, this is not new and it's happened before. She thinks this kind of lawsuit will set precedents for the future, reminding companies that they need to treat their customers ethically.

So what's the best thing for a consumer to do? Scott says, "Try to find out as much as possible about what a company does with the information that it collects."


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