In what it described as an effort to help users who were having trouble logging on to play its Starcraft game, the company collected the information from the registries of Windows computers when log-on requests failed.
"We didn't want people to get frustrated at us and wind up not playing," said Blizzard spokeswoman Susan Wooley. "By collecting people's names and email off the Windows registries, we were able to contact them and find out what was the matter."
Players' difficulties stemmed from an antipiracy measure in Starcraft that assigns each game buyer a unique number called a "CD key." If two users try to use a copy with the same key simultaneously, access is denied. While the key system is designed to prevent illegal copies of the game, Blizzard received complaints from "a handful" of users who said they were being denied access even though they possessed legitimate copies.
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Privacy advocates criticized Blizzard and said the case demonstrated not only the privacy hazards of a networked world, but also the failure of lawmakers to keep up with technological advances.
"Legally, the problem we're currently dealing with in the online world is that there are very few legal standards that protect privacy," said David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "We're dealing with technology that enables companies to be very invasive, that gives companies the ability to come into your home and rifle through your file cabinet. We need to develop the legal protections to keep pace with those kinds of innovations."
Users in Blizzard.net's technical support forums weighed in on both sides of the issue. Some defended the company's attempts to ferret out pirates. But others voiced concerns about the company's actions.
"Personally, I don't like the way that Blizzard has handled the CD key at all," wrote one forum participant. "I paid my 40 bucks, I want my game to work. I DON'T want anyone looking into my computer. It never says in the license stuff, 'Oh, and by the way, you make a mistake, and we get your personal info.'"
Blizzard today released a statement explaining its action. Wooley said the company would not collect names without consent again.