Question of the Week: How Far is Too Far?

Posted: March 23, 2008 by Kendricke in General Game Concepts, Out of Character

What would you do if you had private information about a public person in the gaming industry that you thought should be public because it might potentially expose “moral corruption”. Would you release the information and justify if after the fact by claiming it was important for the public to know…or would you sit tight on the information?

How far is too far? What lines shouldn’t be crossed?

Would players feel outraged if a studio’s allowed their moderators to peruse through their private message archives to dig up dirt on potential exploits or cheating? Probably, even though most studios state clearly that they reserve exactly that right. However, would players feel outraged if those same channels were used to start publishing information about players publically – gender, email addresses, lists of characters played, or even more private information?

For reasons which are probably obvious to many of you, I’ve been thinking about these things in general terms quite a bit lately. I started to wonder exactly what information could be gleaned from my own PM archives about myself as a person, or what information could be quickly found out regarding me personally. It’s actually quite easy, though I’m a fairly easy mark – I don’t really hide all that much about myself online. As a former site manager for a couple of gaming news networks, my name is fairly public (and relatively common) and I’ve never taken great pains to hide my current location, either.

So, how hard would it be for someone motivated to find out a lot of information about me quickly? The sad truth: not very hard at all. However, how much is too much? Where does “publically accessible” cross the line into “ethically questionable”. Isn’t that really the point of ethics – to help us answer the questions about when a thing that can be done, should be done?

So I ask again, how far is too far? How far should we game enthusiasts and writers go to uncover the “truth”? When do we sit on a story and when do we go to virtual press? When should we question our own motives – or should we?

  1. On the other hand, at some point people just don’t care that much (depending on the content).

    In the case of the story you’re talking about, I looked at it and said, “Huh, that’s interesting. Well, whatever,” newsed it, and moved on.

    As for how far people should go to uncover “the truth,” I think it depends on the gravity of the situation. Allegations that devs are deleting characters of players they personally dislike? Okay, lets dig for that.

    The kind of crap that we’re talking about here? That was just petty mud-slinging. I mean, who cares, really (about the dev in question)? That sort of stuff would never have come to light without the nastiness that prompted the digging, and things should have stayed that way.

  2. Illuminator says:

    Someday the corruption that gets revealed by rules-skirting tactics just might hit close to home. It’s easy to brush this matter away when it doesn’t.

    I know better than to expect total privacy when using PM’s, just as I know better than to use my company’s e-mail system to betray my company.

  3. Kendricke says:

    Ok, so for the sake of argument, say that PM’s and emails are fair game. What about other sources for information?

    I’m a relatively well connected gamer. I not only know quite a bit about several developers, but quite a bit about other high profile fansite administrators or gamers as well.

    How far is too far in pursuit of a story? How much is too much when it comes to exposing “relevant corruption”? Does the end really justify the means in all cases?

    I’ll admit it, the subject has me genuinely curious as of late, but not because of the specific incidents being uncovered as of late…but because of the larger repurcussions which could occur down the road.

    As Illuminator says, someday the “corruption…might hit close to home”. Assume for a moment that this is the case, that I have suspicions this might be the case – but in order to acquire the information, I have to skirt some ethical boundaries? Does that make it right?

    I’ve seen a lot of posturing lately regarding freedom of speech and even references to the first amendment. However, at what point do we decide to throw the princples behind the fourth amendment under the bus, in order to get to “the truth”?

    Where is the line? Should there be a line, or is anything fair game provided the potential “corruption” is juicy/relevant enough?

  4. Regarding the fourth amendment (from Wikipedia): “The amendment applies only to governmental actors; with some exceptions it generally does not guarantee to people the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures conducted by private citizens or organizations.” I know you’re talking about the principles behind that, but isn’t it really designed to shield people from legal action? We’re talking about the court of public opinion– no one is getting sued here (and if they were, that probably wouldn’t be admissible).

    I think that if you’re going to use any forum for communication, private or otherwise, you should be aware of the risks going in.

    That said, I guess it depends on how important “the truth” is to you. It’s really hard to draw a line in the sand and say “this is ethical” and “this isn’t” when you’re talking about digging into personal records like that. Nobody likes their dirty laundry aired or their PMs dug up. We all say things privately that aren’t meant for public ears.

    I would argue that it’s not really ethical to go digging for stuff like that unless 1) there’s moral corruption on a massive, pertinent scale, and 2) doing so will provide actionable information. If you’re just digging up PMs to smear someone and get a little media buzz but no one will really ultimately care, you probably shouldn’t cross that line. Go get your information from an interview or something.

  5. Kendricke says:

    Aye, Cameron, I’m less interested in the specific and literal wording of the amendments than I am in the principles behind them in this case. Obviously, as players on forums discuss their “freedom of speech”, we typically aren’t trotting out the verbatim the wording of the First Amendment out to support our positions.

    It’s easy to get mired down in the specifics of some recent events, but that also leads to more emotional arguments. It’s harder to get into the broader ethical implications if we concentrate on individual examples, and that’s one reason I’ve kept this discussion intentionally general (and that fact that you and Illuminator have kept your own responses general as well is much respected and appreciated, I assure you).

  6. Xeavn says:

    Alright, now we have danced around the topic at hand in such general terms that I must admit to being confused.

    Are we talking about the government having the right to monitor my entire life through telephone, internet, etc. where the end result might be spending my life in prison if Big Brother doesn’t like what he observes? Or are we talking about an gaming company like Sony having the right to use the contents of private forum messages, from forum’s they control to ban you from playing thier game?

    The first I have a rather large problem with, the second I don’t find to be morally corrupt, instead it is more or less laughable if you don’t think Sony would be monitoring thier own forums.

    The other topic that seems to have come up is if it is right or wrong for the players to attempt to find and post information about the developers of thier favorite game. While I myself would not do so, because it seems like a mean spirited thing to do, that doesn’t mean that every player will feel the same way about doing so.

    The fact is that our lives are a lot more public than we usually think of them being. Lots of poeple have information like our name, address, and maybe even telephone number. If my good friend Steve takes my new cell phone number and writes it on a bathroom wall and I start getting strange calls at 3 in the morning, I will make sure not to tell Steve my new number after I get it changed.

  7. Cyanbane says:

    Spill your beans Kendricke! The juicy ones first!


  8. Illuminator says:

    I’ve been of the opinion even since getting interested in politics in 7th grade that the truth should never be off-limits, overlooked, or discarded, even if there are serious consequences or penalties for the way it was obtained. Because from the practical standpoint, yes you have your ethics, but there’s a “danger” running loose that you don’t want to be helpless to or at the mercy of.

  9. Ogrebears says:

    Well i know what your talking about and i would say that it is crossing the line to post PM someone said on your site.

    But at the same time if i were a developer and i was using a 3rd party site as mean to pass exploit information. Well then i’m just begging to get caught. I mean they could of used the guild site, or even an gmail e-mail for that.

    So i think both are to blame here.

  10. Kendricke says:

    To be clear, I’m not speaking of any particular example. Yes, there’s definately been more specific examples as of recent to inspire the conversation, but I’m more interested with the general discussion and principles than I am in looking for someone to blame in any particular instance.

    Because, let’s face it – today we can blame X for Y and tit for tat.

    As I mentioned earlier, I have a ridiculous amount of personal information on developers from multiple studios and well known players from a variety of games. Would it be fair game of me to abuse the trust of those individuals at some later point just because I feel justified to get to the truth? Will someone (player or developer) at some point decide that information I shared in confidence about myself is suddenly fair game if I happen to cross them?

    Because once we start making those lines acceptable to cross, what’s to stop any of us from doing so.

  11. Rijacki says:

    What does privacy mean? That’s actually been a question that’s been hot in politics for the past several years and especially after 9/11 inspired laws such as the Patriot Act.

    I know you were opening this topic just in light of recent events and how the privacy of forums relate to game players, but that’s just a smaller version of the wider debate and how many of the perceptions relating to privacy (especially privacy online) have bee shaping in the last few years.

    I mention one political hot fire event, but really the concepts of privacy and what it means online has been going on longer than that, 9/11 was just an, excuse the expression, explosive catalyst. In the after math of that event, a lot of personal freedoms including privacy related issues were sacrificed in the name of “keeping us safe” or preventing “corruption”. The idea of “you should only want privacy if you have something to hide” came before that, but it really started to gel and become more prevalent and pervasive afterward.

    So, should there an expectation of privacy in online communication? Do you expect that your email should be kept in backups by your ISP and given to anyone requesting them (without warrant or even reason)? Do you expect a log of your every click online should be kept by your ISP ready to be handed over at a moment’s notice to anyone who asks? I’m not talking about work email or what you do you your computer at work, your activities on your home PC. But, that is exactly what was part of the original Patriot Act, and, in a smaller form is exactly what occurred on that website forum.

    So, should there be no privacy because “only those who have something to hide need privacy”? Should only SOME people have privacy? Who are those SOME? Are you in that SOME? Why should you be? Why shouldn’t someone else be?

    It really is that simple, or well, that complex.

    Why should your right of privacy be protected (you wouldn’t want your mom to know you went to -that- site would you) but someone else’s shouldn’t?

    Are there some places which should be more private than another? Does a “Private Message” carry with it any expectation of privacy?

    I know, I know too many rhetorical questions.

    I’ve been in online related things since the days of BBSes.

    I remember hearing how, in the late 1980s, Steve Jackson Games had been raided by the Secret Service. How when they finally had everything returned (and no charges filed) emails on their BBS (emails between non-employees, customers who had dialed in and sent messages to each other without intervention of any employee) had been accessed and deleted. How little privacy meant to our government on a fishing expedition. (BTW, I knew it was the Secret Service but until trying to look up the date, I hadn’t remembered it was part of the E911 witch hunt, for more info check into the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

    I also remember, as a BBS sysop, when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was first making its waves before being gelled into an Act. The definitions of information services and what/how information had to be stored and supplied for law enforcement scared a lot of us even then with its implications toward privacy. Those fears weren’t met with reality until much later, after the concept of online privacy had been steadily eroded.

    Right now, that anyone would think it acceptable that the any means of obtaining the “truth” should be allowable is really really frightening.

  12. Illuminator says:

    If privacy at all costs were really a virtue then the Constitution would have never dedicated the second half of the Fourth Amendment to describing the legal way to violate privacy.

    This isn’t a general-purpose communications provider or ISP we’re talking about here. The rules for PM’s were undefined by the private site’s rules, and the site was registered to a U.S. citizen and not beholden to the laws of the E.U. There was no Tenth Amendment equivalent in the rules to determine what was by default legit outside of the rules.

  13. Rijacki says:

    I’m not looking just at the issues of that one site, or that one collection of incidents. However, just focusing there, what privacy should something called “private messaging” grant you? Is calling it “private” indicating it isn’t read by the administrators?

    In the BBS days, it became well known which boards in a local area would become known for their admins reading emails sent/received on their boards. Those boards would generally become shunned by the local community or used for everything except email or so-called private messages. Yet, now we have individuals being lauded for going through private messages to obtain juicy bits.

    To me, that’s a degeneration and an indication of the degradation of privacy that has occurred in the past several years (I would say “in the past 2 decades” but that would reveal my age *laugh*).

  14. Xeavn says:

    The point I was trying to make, and I think others have touched on it as well is the huge, huge difference between our privacy being invaded by the government and our privacy being invaded by an individual, fan site or company.

    I am more than willing to get up and complain about government spying, talk about how bad it is, how much I hate it, and why I end up e-mailing and calling my representatives when the topic comes up in Congress. Yet this isn’t a politics site last time I looked, but a gaming site. So the question becomes how bad is it when gaming companies and fansites and that jerk on your server try to violate your privacy?

    Not that bad. It isn’t good by any means either, but I can’t bring up the since of outrage and horror that I would for the previous topic. Just because Game Company A or Fan Site B doesn’t respect my privcay doesn’t mean we are all doomed to complete government surveillance in a few short years, and to even suggest the topics are similar is ludicrous.

  15. Thraxarious says:

    Back in the BBS days, I was running a board that was touted as having a proper private message system, Citadel-86k. I do not know if anyone came up with tools to, but it was designed to not allow admins free reign over private messages. True you could probably pick apart the message files and decode any encryption it had, but it was designed to make it really hard for anyone who suddenly had an issue with a user from drudging through old messages and trying to find something embarrassing or taken out of context to use against them.

    I feel that being in control of a message system of any sort, should come a great deal of responsibility, and if you allow yourself to fall into the petty trap of trying to get at anyone by any means, you imediately fail the responsibility test. Heck, often getting dragged into such a situation in the first place tends to fail you, if you decide to abuse your powers or not.

    I’m sure there are plenty of messages I’ve said in private that might make others feel uncomfortable, I have friends across many spectrums and not all of them jive with each other.

    But when you go the step, step over the bounds of your userbase in dredging up private emails and messages only meant for another party, you do not only violate the trust of the two users involved, but everyone else using that system as you state that you can and will for your own petty uses, attempt to bring them harm or shame. Thats when its blatantly obvious that you should not be in that kind of position at all.

  16. Rijacki says:

    “The point I was trying to make, and I think others have touched on it as well is the huge, huge difference between our privacy being invaded by the government and our privacy being invaded by an individual, fan site or company.”

    They aren’t really. If you become accustomed to having no expectation of privacy in one “unimportant” realm, why should you be concerned about having it respected in another? Why is it different if, say, Kendricke were to post personal information about Rijacki on the public side of the Legion board from information I put in non-displayed (i.e. private) part of my profile or even from a so-called private message I sent to Xeavn vs if a person from the NSA were to go to Covad (my ISP) and request (without my knowledge or consent or even without a warrant) all logs pertaining to traffic to and from my IP addresses (I have 5 static IPs for my account)? Under the Patriot Act, they could.. even if there is not even a shred of evidence there has been any illegal activity.

    Why should my private information in one place be worth less than my privacy elsewhere?

    BTW, I do find it rather amusing that most of those who champion the cause of privacy rights tend to be the most “transparent” online and many of those who demand that privacy for certain people shouldn’t be allowed will go to great lengths to hide or obscure their own identity and data. An example of that is the response LFG gave for why his domain is obscured from whois by “domainsbyproxy”, that he guards his online data and online privacy (sorry, don’t have the exact reference, it’s in the 80+ page thread on the SOE board, somewhere around page 85-87).

  17. Xeavn says:

    I am going to have to disagree with you Rijacki, and although I doubt I will convince you differently, I feel I should at least try and explain why I disagree.

    The difference for me is the matter of choice. I have the choice to participate in the Legion forum’s and if my PM”s were pulled out and displayed, I have the choice to stop participating. The worst punishment that could be inflicted on me is likely removal from the guild. If I was caught trying to cheat using Sony’s website, the absolute worst they could do is ban me from thier game. They don’t have the ability to cause real harm to me based on my private informaton. Furthermore, I have given them the right to monitor my actions and private communications. It is in the End User Agreement you click I Agree to every time you log into EQ2. I am fairly certian I have probably agreed to similar statements for most of the websites that I use.

    When it comes to the government it is a different story. My participation isn’t voluntary. I have to pay taxes, and follow the rules of the state and federal government that I reside in. Sure I could attempt to immigrate to another country, but I still would not be able to do whatever I wanted, I would have just changed the rules that I have to live under. What if the government decides that it is going to monitor my every action and finds something it doesn’t like? Well I may go to jail for a while. I may spend the rest of my life in prison. The fact is that the government not only has the resources to closely monitor our lives, they have the force necessary to back it up.

    So banned from EQ2 vs. Life in Prison. Choice vs Law of the Land. I see some rather large differences.

  18. Rijacki says:

    You are right, you choose to go to those locations.

    I just don’t think that choice should involve having your privacy violated when there was a statement or indication otherwise (i.e. “Private Messages” labeled exactly as such or the sign-up process indicating “this is private information and will not be posted publically”). If there wasn’t the indication some information is private vs other information being publically available, that would mean I am choosing to have it public.

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