21st Century Digital REDACTED

Blizzard, Real ID and privacy issues. Anyone playing any of the Blizzard properties has probably been hearing the buzz about Real ID. For everyone else, Real ID is the Blizzard social connection tool. It lets you talk to your friends no matter what Blizzard game they are playing, as long as you know the email address they used to register that game and you give them permission to contact you via Real ID.

When you allow someone to connect to you via Real ID, they see the name you registered your account under. For basically everyone not blessed with extreme forethought, that was probably their real name. There is at the moment, no way outside of a legal name change to dissociate your name with your Real ID or change the visible name associated with your account. I tried.

Until today, I had minor privacy concerns with the association of a person’s name with their Real ID account. Today, those concerns just expanded hundred-fold.

Today, Blizzard announced that sometime in the near future, your Real ID name will be associated with any posts you make on their forums. You will also have the option of back-associating your previous posts with that ID, and also have the option of associating your characters with your posts.

This presents such a massive privacy issue that it isn’t even funny. There won’t be any cute footnoted jokes in this post.

One of Blizzard’s reasons—the one that they have stated publicly, is to reduce the trolling on their forums by removing the ability to make an anonymous post. And yes, there is a massive trolling problem on the forums. There will no longer be the ability to make a level 1 alt to make an anonymous post to tell someone “OMG UR SUCH A NOOB LOLOLOLOLOLOLOL BRB LOLING FOREVER” because every post you make will be associated with one account.

I am all for reducing the trolling on the forums. At the moment, to say they are not a productive place to have a discussion would be the understatement of the year. I am even comfortable with associating all forum posts with one account.

I and countless others* are not comfortable with associating someone’s real identity with their forum or in-game activity and I am supremely not comfortable with the fact that there is no way to change or remove that information should a problem arise.

We are all told not to give our Real ID privileges to people we do not trust. People we do not trust will not be the problem. Broken trust will be the problem. Ex-friends. Ex-World of Warcraft guildmates.

If Blizzard does not allow people to choose an alias for their Real ID accounts, this is what will happen:

Someone who right now has never been stalked, abused or harassed will make forum posts or give out their Real ID, never worrying about that information being public. Their posts will be associated with a character name as well, because they will opt into that, and again, never worry about that information being public.

Then they will make a post that manages to make someone angry. It won’t be trolling, it won’t be profane. It will be a disagreement, or a suggestion, something they never suspected would set someone off.

And then they will be stalked. Someone will send things to their home, or find their place of employment or education. They will get harassing phone calls, or their family will. They will receive threatening phone calls or emails, or even packages.. Perhaps someone will try to sic /b/ on them.

Or worse, they will be tracked down in the real world and physically stalked and/or harmed.

This is not fiction. These things have already happened to countless people.

(A disclaimer: The plural of anecdote is of course, not data. However, in this case, the only way I have to demonstrate how people are already being stalked is to tell stories.)

A year and some months ago, I made a post to a blog community for female players of World of Warcraft, asking if anyone else was as bothered by an aspect of an in-game event as I was. (Noblegarden, “Shake your Bunny Maker” and I think it’s mildly sexist.) Because of that post, to a community of just under 7,000 people at the time, I was sent comments and messages on my own blog insulting me. I was also sent insulting emails, Twitter messages and one highly suspicious Facebook friend request. I already obfuscate my email address, which meant that due to one post about one very small aspect of the game, multiple people went to the trouble of searching for my personal email address just to insult me.

A few months ago, I also made a similar post to the World of Warcraft suggestions forums. This is the only way a player can make suggestions about the game, mind you. You cannot call or write. I did not read the replies. I knew better. I did have friends who did for me, and they told me it was, essentially, the very definition of not good and I was better off not seeing how people reacted. I made the post anonymously, by creating a level one alt character that I never intend to play.

Next year, I will not be able to make the same suggestion without taking serious privacy precautions. Having my real name—remember, there is no way to remove or change the name associated with the account—associated with a post of this nature is at best foolish and at worst, dangerous.

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Right now, two of my friends are being stalked and harassed in World of Warcraft by their former guild leader and the officers of their former guild. This is someone that they trusted, this is someone they played with, and until recently, someone they considered a friend. Their mistake? Disagreeing with some raid strategies and choosing to quietly leave the guild over it.

In return, this person they considered a friend has followed them to their Twitter accounts, email accounts and to their new server and guild in the game. My friends have been threatened and stalked over in-game activity.

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In both instances, I hope you can imagine what could happen if real names were associated with the events. My name is common enough that nothing associated with me comes up on a simple Google search. A more robust one? It isn’t hard to get from blog posts where I live, and that information plus my real name gets one address—my apartment.

My friends? Both have distinctive real names. A simple Google search found me their Facebook profiles, their personal blogs, their resumes. The latter means that their phone number, personal email addresses, home addresses, and professional contacts are easy to find. Someone already willing to stalk them may only consider it a small step to harassing them in the real world.

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Won’t happen, you say?

Too late, it already has. To a “blue”—that is, a Blizzard Employee.

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I have contacted Blizzard to ask them to add an Alias field to Real ID, and to allow us to change the names associated with our accounts without a legal name change.

I urge all of you reading this to do the same, and to encourage your friends and families who also play Blizzard games to also contact them. Email them, call them, make a post on the suggestions forum while you still can do so anonymously. You can find their contact information here.

Since there is no way to remove a name associated with an account, there is also no way to safeguard the privacy of children and teens playing World of Warcraft. Contact the ESRB. You can find their contact information here

I also urge you to be polite. Say please, say thank you. Do not swear, do not insult anyone. It is essential that when we ask for this, that we are professional and courteous.

It is already too easy to find someone’s information online in order to stalk or harass them. Please—ask Blizzard to stop making it this much easier.

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*Metafilter.com, reddit.com, fark.com, consumerist.com, 10,000 comments to the World of Warcraft forums, and if you know of more, please comment!