Playing with aliens could reveal your secrets

By Charles Seife WHILE computer games enthusiasts were preparing to obliterate the evil alien race of Zerg, their computers were being hijacked by a software company, a lawsuit alleges. Donald Driscoll, a lawyer in Albany, California, is suing the maker of the Starcraft computer game, claiming that the software surreptitiously gathered confidential information. In Starcraft, players compete against each other over the Internet. Driscoll alleges that Blizzard Entertainment of Irvine, California, put a “trap door” in their software. “It takes a file that has important information about your computer and your programs, and if Blizzard requests, it tries to upload your e-mail address and name,” he says. Susan Wooley, a spokeswoman for Blizzard, confirms that information has been gathered by Blizzard’s games server, “We were having problems with people being denied access, so our server went in and gathered their e-mail addresses,” she says. The company has also been able to spot pirated copies of its software, but Wooley says the data gathered were not used to catch pirates, and have been deleted. The trap door is no longer in use, she adds. However, David Banisar, a lawyer with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington DC, argues that Blizzard’s actions flouted Californian law. “It’s downright illegal,” he claims. Driscoll filed the lawsuit on behalf of an organisation called Intervention, based in Albany, which sues companies it claims are using unfair business practices. But he argues that the case raises wider privacy issues. “All the government would have to do is hook up with a popular game manufacturer, and it could search for accounting files and tell whether you’re making more than you’re reporting,” says Driscoll. “We’re trying to get the word out to software manufacturers:
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