Watermarking: Why I am not Worried

The big uproar among some WoW players this week is the revelation, (made a couple of days ago), that Blizzard places hidden watermarking in screen shots taken in WoW. According to the site that published the discovery, these watermarks can show Blizzard “our character’s account name/id, the time of the screenshot and the the full information of the realm, including its IP address”, and they highlight in bright red after the last one “(think ‘private servers’)”. Yup, private, or illegal, servers. In other words, servers that are stealing Blizzard’s copyrighted works, and their Intellectual Property, for their own uses. We’ll get more into that later.

The Discovery
Let’s take a look at the place this discovery was published on. The site is called OwnedCore. Their title tags on their site say “OwnedCore – World of Warcraft Exploits, Hacks, Bots, and Guides”. Now, this is very interesting. Why, especially, would a site dedicated to “exploits, hacks, bots” be worried about being tracked? Hmm, perhaps cause they know it’s not allowed, and are afraid of repercussions of Blizzard taking too close a look at their screen shots?

I am going to be very honest about my opinion (or feelings, or both), about any site that cares more about the freedom of private server operators and players than the company who made the game, (and who continues to invest heavily in making this game awesome), is not a site I want to rely on as a stalwart defender of the best interest of players. To put it simply, I think this site is trying to protect the rear ends of their players and contributors now that they know Blizzard can track where those awesome exploit shots are taken, by whom, and the IP of the server they were on.

Important info to know? Some would say yes. Is the weight of the information the primary reason this site posted about it? Unlikely. I see this post just as much a heads up to those who post exploiting, hacking, and botting screen shots to be careful to filter their shots(or run the risk of being revealed). The least the site could do was to be honest about this, because anyone with half a brain can see through to the real reason.

The Secret
I had a conversation on Twitter with a person who felt that this type of tracking by a big corporation is scary and ‘skeevy’. The person seems to feel that Blizzard should have been open from the start when they began doing this. I disagree. If my thinking is right on why they did this, then I completely agree with Blizzard’s decision to do this, and for keeping it a secret. If someone is hacking, exploiting, botting, or otherwise breaking the ToS, and bragging about it online, then they should be punished.

If those same abusers of the game know that there is something in the screen shots, perhaps they might work to hide their information so Blizzard cannot find them. We don’t know, and likely never will know, how many of those accounts Blizzard has banned and punished over the years were discovered in their tactics by their lack of knowledge about this, and we also do not know what effect this discovery will have in their future efforts to clean up the game from those who would harm the community.

The same person I mentioned above said, and I paraphrase, that the government tells us when it adds watermarks, to things like printers, copiers, and cameras, so we should expect Blizzard to do the same. I am sure a few people at Blizzard are honored to be given the same level of responsibility and expectation as the US Government, but alas they are not even close to the same level. In fact, I would venture to say that Blizzard has many expectations and requirements of it as a company that would require the secrecy and ‘skeevy’ behaviour that some are up in arms about.

As a publicly traded company, Activision Blizzard is expected by it’s shareholders to take certain measures to protect it’s properties, it’s franchises. It must protect WoW, Diablo, Starcraft, Call of Duty, and other franchises against those who would work to harm it. Whether that harm is through private servers, invalid claims of problems or issues, harming the game communities, harming the community of players, (both professional and normal players), or just harming the stellar reputation of Blizzard Entertainment, the company is required to take measures, and they have. If I were a shareholder, I would be applauding them today.

The Security
The information in the screen shots are either known, or suspected to be “our character’s account name/id, the time of the screenshot and the the full information of the realm, including its IP address”. Assuming this is right, which I don’t believe we can know for sure, let us analyze the risk this information presents. First, “character’s account name/ID”. Well, sorry to tell you folks, Blizzard already know this about you, assuming you are using their server. If you are not, well, sorry, you lost the right to privacy when you broke the law. Next, “the time of the screenshot”. Mostly irrelevant information on it’s own.

Lastly, “the full information of the realm, including its IP address”. This is the big one. This can split the players into two camps. Those who play on the official servers, and are doing nothing in violation of the rules, have nothing to worry about. Your screenshot would simply tell Blizzard all the stuff they already know, and at worst you might get a GM whisper and say they liked your shot. However, if you are on a private server, or doing something on Blizzard’s servers that is a violation of the rules, this is as red a flag as one can get.

For the ‘bad guys’ this information could help Blizzard track them, and they don’t want that, not at all. It can get their precious WoW accounts banned, it can get their beloved private servers closed, and it can get them in trouble with the law, if Blizzard chose to do that. There are many sides of the legal means Blizzard has that could be brought to bear, from copyright, to IP, to trade secrets. There is no lack of laws and methods to go after these folks, and their anonymity is truly their only defense, because the law will not protect them once identified.

My Conclusions
So, we have Blizzard maintaining a practice with very few useful purposes outside of copyright protection, and player protection. We have those whose communities entire focus is on those things that harm our game, from hacking, to botting, to exploits. They are the people who abuse bugs to make your enjoyment and fun while playing WoW less than it should be. Who will you side with?

In the history of copyright protection measures, many of them have been touted, when announced, as ‘only harming the bad guys’. In the end result, though, they are no issue for the bad guys, often being broken within days or less, but in fact are only cumbersome for the legitimate buyers of the product. This measure, if we assume that copyright protection and player protection are it’s primary goals, are in fact only a risk for the bad guys. Legitimate players have little to risk from this information being in their screenshots, and in fact it is of no use when your screen shots show nothing bad.

In arguing my points on Twitter, the person I mentioned above seemed to allege I was a Blizzard apologist. If you listen to archives of when I was on WoW Radio, especially the PayPal rant, or to Shade and I talking about the original Real ID announcement, you will well know I will pull no punches when I have issues with something Blizzard has done, or decided. It is simply the case that I do not feel this is one of those instances.

Blizzard is doing the same thing I, as a photographer, would do, watermarking my copyrighted works to make sure I know where it is being used, and that it is not being abused. That is the crux of this issue, and while it is a lot more technical and in depth, that is what I feel it boils down to. Feel free to disagree in the comments, and I will be happy to engage in respectful and polite discussion on that topic.

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One Response to Watermarking: Why I am not Worried

  1. “First, “character’s account name/ID”. Well, sorry to tell you folks, Blizzard already know this about you”

    And now so does anyone who can determine how to parse that information out of screenshots you posted publicly, unaware that they potentially contain personally identifying information. This is all of the info that the hackers were able to extract, but Blizzard has not confirmed that there is no more personal information embedded in the watermarks. Further, we would have no way of knowing if Blizzard decided to embed further information in the watermark in the future, just as we had no notice about what they’re doing presently.

    What if Blizzard felt that, now that this info has been disclosed, they need to redo the watermark and embed the IP address of the PLAYER in addition to what is currently in the watermark (assuming that we know everything currently in the watermark) to be sure they’ve got the right person? Now you’re potentially linking characters to IP addresses for anyone with malicious intentions. Would you still be comfortable with that?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m no friend to hackers. I’m just concerned that the lack of transparency would keep legitimate players from ever knowing if Blizzard (or any other provider) ever does cross the line.

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