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RealID Changes; The Very Real Ease of Stalking In The Internet Age.

((( quoting iscari0t’s pretty insightful blog entry on What You Did There; I See It. blog- original entry here – please go comment there if you liked it and have something to share about the whole topic of the Real ID fiasco)))

As every other gaming blog is reporting, yesterday Blizzard dropped a bomb on us, unveiling their new plans for the future of the RealID feature. Of the several changes planning to be implemented, the most… disturbing is the following:

The first and most significant change is that in the near future, anyone posting or replying to a post on official Blizzard forums will be doing so using their Real ID — that is, their real-life first and last name — with the option to also display the name of their primary in-game character alongside it. These changes will go into effect on all StarCraft II forums with the launch of the new community site prior to the July 27 release of the game, with the World of Warcraft site and forums following suit near the launch of Cataclysm. The classic forums, including those for Diablo II and Warcraft III, will be moving to a new legacy forum section with the release of the StarCraft II community site and at that time will also transition to using Real ID for posting.The official forums have always been a great place to discuss the latest info on our games, offer ideas and suggestions, and share experiences with other players — however, the forums have also earned a reputation as a place where flame wars, trolling, and other unpleasantness run wild. Removing the veil of anonymity typical to online dialogue will contribute to a more positive forum environment, promote constructive conversations, and connect the Blizzard community in ways they haven’t been connected before. With this change, you’ll see blue posters (i.e. Blizzard employees) posting by their real first and last names on our forums as well.

Whoa, whoa, back up a second – so if we want to post on the public forums, be it to talk, recruit, learn, help, or ask for technical assistance, we need to do so using our real first and last names? Yes, that’s what they’re saying, exactly. The idea is that with that level of accountability, people will troll less. They’re right, of course, but only if by “troll” you mean “post”.

There have already tens of thousands of posts in the single thread (over 1100 pages at the time of this writing) explaining how the many, many reasons this is a terrible idea, from the ease of stalking and creepy pedobears, to the ethical violation of forced exposure (it’s not optional when the forums are necessary to resolve technical issues), to the very real fact that real names will be tied to a gaming site and googleable by potential employers, and more  – check the thread.

My posting here isn’t to reiterate everything that’s been said before, but rather to tell a cautionary (and hopefully exemplary) tale of the very real dangers of this change. Buckle up, it’s quite a ride.

Early on in that thread, a toon by the name of Sikketh (from Thunderlord) posted the following:

I’m really not so sure about what’s so devastating about putting a name out. My real-life name is (removed). My cousins have problems finding me on facebook and social networks because when they try to search for me, there are hundreds of results. Your real-life name is very likely not going to be unique.

I don’t see how knowing someone’s name can turn into knowing everything about them. I welcome anyone to come to me where I work, then, if you can figure it out by my name, and ask me about my WoW characters.

Or call my cell phone, it will be on. Throwing myself out there.

I may be a decent human being, but it’s nigh-impossible for me to resist a dare like that. I set to work.

With just his first and last name and his wow toon’s name, I was able to find his twitter, facebook, home address, home phone number, work address, work phone number and parent’s names. The whole process took about 20 minutes. I immediately called the house, but no one was home. I sat on the idea of calling his work for a bit, and eventually decided to do so (he did ask for it).

The following is an ACTUAL PARAPHRASE of the phone conversation when I called his work (names and addresses have of course been removed):

Coworker: Hello?
Me: Hello, could I please speak with So-And-So?
CW: Um, sure, hold on.
Me: Thank you.
::hold music::
(a new person, female, answers)
Manager: Hello, this is Kimberly SomeLastName, can I help you?
Me: Yes, I was wondering if I could please speak with So-And-So?
Manager: ::pause:: Sure. Please hold.
Me: Thank you.
::hold music, five minute wait::
::(Male Voice)::
MV: Hello?
Me: Hello, is this So-And-So?
MV: Yes.
Me: First and foremost, I want to apologize for calling you at work, and I also apologize if this doesn’t make sense, but are you Sikketh, from Thunderlord?
MV: ::pause:: Yes.
Me: So yeah, that took me about 20 minutes and it was pretty easy.
MV: Wow. Ok.
Me: Also, just for shits and giggles, is your address ?
MV: yep.
Me: Phone number 555-555-5555?
MV: yep.
Me: I know your parents’ names are Name1 and Name2, I know your room is painted blue and I know you have a cute dog. I know where you were on the 4th of July and I know when you got back. Don’t worry, I’m not a crazy, I’m not going to do anything with it, and I’m not going to post your address or anything anywhere. I just wanted you to know that what I did was very easy and very free, from just your name and toon’s name. You have a good day, and thanks for being a good sport about it.
MV: Hey, I did basically ask for it – thank you. I was wrong about RealID.

My post on the public thread is as follows, in response to his above post:

I would just like to point out that I just spoke with the above poster at their place of work. It took about 20 minutes, and I found his home address, home telephone, and parent’s names; I found pictures from the past year, read his facebook wall, know how old he is, know what books he brought on his trip this past week, and I know that he has an adorable dog named Molly.I know the color of his walls and where he spent the 4th of July; I know he has a penchant for clever/ironic tshirts and wears corrective lenses. I know who his favorite band is at the moment and what his relationship status is.

In addition, I know many *very* personal details about his life that I will not post here out of respect for his privacy (it’s hard for me to turn down such a flagrant challenge as the above, but I’m not a jerk about it), but suffice to say that there is a LOT of information on the internet, and once it’s there, it’s very, very hard to make it go away.

Moral is – your name might be really, really common – you can still be found, easily.

This RealID change is a bad one.

He took the whole thing really well, and has since edited his name out of his original post (as well as put in a “Edit: I was found!”) and we’ve talked some on facebook. I explained in detail to him how I went about it so that he can do what he can to close up those gaps (he’s since locked his twitter and facebook pages better, though finding his address and phone number didn’t require either, just his name). He’s even since applied to my guild and his application is under review.

I mentioned that this wasn’t the first time I’ve done this. He asked if I could find anyone, and I was like “most people have an online presence these days – if you do, I can find you.” He asked me to find his boss, the aforementioned Kimberly SomeLastName (protip: SomeLastName is still a fake name) – I found her and her husband’s home address and phone number in about a minute.

The point of this tale, however, is not to demonstrate a fun and heartwarming tale about a well-meaning prankster who teaches someone else a lesson and possibly gains a friend out of it. No, the point of this tale is that it is shockingly easy to find people through the internet from very little information, and not everyone is nice. Let us not so quickly forget the sick and tragic case of Julien Barreaux, a counterstrike player who’s character was killed via knife fight and who became so enraged that he spent the next six months stalking down his opponent (known only as “Mikhael”), who turned out to live in a town only a few miles away. He then found him and stabbed him in the chest, missing his heart by an inch. The victim survived and the assailant is now behind bars, but c’mon, people. I found someone several states away from me in less than 20 minutes from their name. You really think it’s a good idea to force that into the open?

This change is a terrible one, and I hope the overwhelmingly negative reaction from Blizzard’s player base will cause a change. I am all for accountability – tie our RealID to a single, unchangable forum avatar/username. This eliminates level 1 alt posting and forces sustained accountability for all forum posts, while at the same time protecting our privacy.