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Azeroth Security Advisor: WoW is watching you, part 1

Jon Eldridge

Every week, computer security expert Jon Eldridge is your Azeroth Security Advisor. He will delve into the darkest reaches of computer security rumor and bring the facts back home even if they're wriggling at the end of a pike. His goal is to provide useful information to gamers who don't think about security much and flame fodder for those self appointed experts who need to rationalize the cost of their expensive certifications. Like any good security force he's a mercenary at heart and is happy to take subject requests from the user community that he serves. So feel free to leave a comment below or just sit back and enjoy the show.

If you play World of Warcraft you agreed to the Terms of Use Agreement and End User License Agreement even if you don't know it. If you're like most gamers you "agreed" with all the forethought and consideration of a lab rat agreeing to run a maze in exchange for a yummy pellet of rat chow. Scurry, scurry, click, click... yum! Let's face it, when you're just two clicks away from playing the hottest MMORPG on the planet those screens usually go by just as fast as they appear. But what else besides deep fat fried MMO goodness is contained within the WoW client you're running?

One of things you agreed to while merrily clearing those pesky EULA and Terms of Use screens after every patch is that Blizzard "MAY" monitor your PC's RAM and CPU processes for "unauthorized" 3rd party programs that by Blizzard's "sole determination" may or may not be deemed naughty. Naughty in this case includes but is not limited to teleporting, data mining, exploiting bugs, facilitating bots and generally doing an end run around the game mechanics for fun and profit. In reality the WoW.exe DOES monitor your system, silently, thoroughly, and every 15 seconds.

Some of you know about the hype and controversy that occurred in 2005 around the claim that Blizzard had bundled spyware within the WoW client. I didn't until a few days ago when I decided to investigate the rumor. After digesting hundreds of chat/flame posts, reading up on Blizzard's legal activity and even managing to uncover a fact or two I'm here to uphold the three pillars of online journalism, stimulate, educate, and aggravate.

Blizzard keeps track of the hardware and software running on your PC in three ways that I could find. The first is a periodic system survey. You may occasionally notice a spooky little message like "Sending non-identifiable personal information" during the handshake process while logging in. Blizzard assures the user community that this is a hardware survey that helps their development team optimize patches and "future games". The survey logs information about your CPU, RAM, OS, video, audio, HD/CD/DVD and internet connection.

Some users consider this invasive and others wish they had been better informed as the message itself is less than confidence inspiring. Should you be concerned about the system survey? For most players including myself I would have to say no. Blizzard has done a fantastic job getting WoW to run on older systems and if this is the mechanism they use to ensure that fact more power to them. It sure beats manual surveys. I would love to see Blizzard publish the results of this 10 million plus system survey broken down by each category. Who wouldn't want to know how their rig measures up to the competition like Valve does and use that data to rationalize more hardware upgrades?

The second item Blizzard employs to safeguard your online experience by sniffing around on your system is the Launcher.exe program. The Launcher is the default start mechanism for World of Warcraft. According to Blizzard the Launcher distributes news, protects against viruses, and upholds the Terms of Use by scanning for cheat programs in use prior to logging in.

Overall the Launcher is a benefit to the user community. For folks who do not frequent the World of Warcraft website the news supplied via the Launcher can provide critical information about game play, events, and easy access to technical support. The courtesy virus scan is certainly a bonus. But potentially far more valuable than anything else Blizzard provides is the pre login cheating scan that attempts to prevent an unnecessary ban of your account. If the Launcher decides that you are running a cheat program it will notify you and give you a chance to disable the program prior to logging into the game. Once logged in any cheat software detected on your computer puts you at risk of getting suspended or banned from the game permanently.

Blizzard recognizes that not everybody has full control over the computer they play on or is fully aware of all the programs running on their computer so they built in a safeguard. "We've often found that players whose account information had been compromised by a Trojan program or whose World of Warcraft accounts were banned for using a third-party cheat program while playing were unaware that these programs existed on the computer they used to play the game." Blizzard has banned thousands of players from WoW for various reasons since launch. Any attempt to minimize the collateral damage caused by the constant cat and mouse security game going on behind the scenes should be applauded. Use of the launcher is not compulsory though and you can access the main login screen directly via WoW.exe located in the World of Warcraft program folder.

So far so good but Blizzard didn't get this far without a (m)ace up their sleeve. Tune in next week for all the trauma and drama caused by the discovery of Blizzard's ultimate boss mob... the Warden. Cue thunderclap and scary music.

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