Thursday, June 24, 2010

Blizzard's RealID and the privacy violation it represents

I don’t normally like to pile on. I’m not one to follow the crowd or entertain fads and so I found myself this week not really wanting to talk about Blizzard’s new RealID system as virtually everyone else was. But in all the articles I’ve read about it this week not one has really said the things I would say. So despite my natural inclination to not pile on, I’m going to do so. In short I am not in favor of RealID and will not be using it in its current form. I can, however, see the attraction for Blizzard as they seek to tap the social networking aspect of the technology as common feature in al their current and upcoming games. The ability to communicate with friends across games and platforms natively is indeed a strong draw, but the current implementation is deeply flawed.

First, Blizzard created the system with absolutely no way to “opt out”. If you do not wish to participate in the RealID system you must “ignore request” from every user who sends you a friend request. You’ll get a popup notification when you receive the friend request, which will reappear every time you log in until you either accept or ignore it. The notification will also periodically reappear while playing. This is the first flaw in the system as I believe there should be a global option to ignore all requests for those of us who do not plan on using it at all. I think it’s obvious that Blizzard made a decision to not add this simple feature so as to add pressure to users to adopt it over time. That’s a strategic decision and one I find to be extremely arrogant.

Secondly the RealID system will identify you by your full name as recorded in the Blizzard billing system. Blizzard includes a warning to players that the system is meant only for real life friends, but they also enable friends of friends to see that information as well. In the end people I may not even know will be able to see my full name and be able to tie that name to my characters in all the games that uses the RealID system. You aren’t afforded an opportunity to use a screen name alias. As one who values personal privacy I don’t feel Blizzard should be “outing” anyone in this manner. My feelings would be somewhat different if there were a means to use a screen name and have a more granular ability to limit just how far my information could be shared. But as it stands now Blizzard’s ham-handed implementation forces you to share your information with who eventually will be virtually everyone, or not use the system at all.

Third, there have already been reports on the forum that various guilds are making RealID mandatory. Obviously this is a user problem and a guild has no right to mandate use of a system such as this. But we all know that peer pressure will often cause people to do things they wouldn’t normally do otherwise and so the pressure to comply with the mandate in order to remain in the guild will be strong to a lot of people in this circumstance. It’s an abuse of the intention of the system and will become an invasion of privacy. Mandates such as these will make playing on unguilded characters impossible to hide and as someone who has many alt, most of which who are unguilded, I can sympathize. Some times you want to play on a character where no one knows you and just play. Some times you don’t want to be bothered by friends or have to deal with guild business. Guilds who will mandate RealID use should be kicked to the curb, but will they be by all those being forced to use it?

As I said, I can see the allure of the system for Blizzard. And I do not begrudge them the opportunity to capitalize but I would like to see several modifications. Foremost is the global setting I mentioned earlier. I’d like to be able to “opt out” and not be bothered with requests at all. I’d also like the ability to set a screen name or Alias and limit the extent to which my information can be shared. As my information is shared with friends of friends I can see that over the course of a year or more my information being shared with many people I don’t know, who would also then know my specific characters in Blizzard’s various games. That sort of information should be limited to specific people I choose to allow it be displayed to, and certainly not hundreds or thousands of people I don’t even know.

Until those sorts of changes are put into place I will no be using RealID.