Pixels and Policy takes a look at how Indiana law enforcement officials turned to the Metaverse to catch an elusive drug dealer.
At Large in Indiana, At Home in Azeroth
According to a recent report from Mashable, drug dealer Alfred Hightower managed to evade Indiana police for some time. He success at dodging the law ended, however, when law enforcement officials thought to check Hightower's favorite game – World of Warcraft – for any sign of the fugitive.
From the article:
After finding out Hightower was a WoW fan, Roberson sent a subpoena to
the game’s maker, Blizzard Entertainment. With the information they
sent back, Roberson was able to pinpoint the perp’s location.
Aside from being a happy ending for law enforcement and just desserts for the fugitive drug dealer, this situation raises interesting legal questions that we're likely to see much more of going into 2010. When Blizzard tracked Hightower, his usage history revealed he'd fled the country. Extradition proceedings are in order to get Hightower back to Indiana, but the interactions between Indiana police and California's Blizzard are fascinating.
Here's what's interesting: According to legal research and attorney Robert G.
Scofield's legal resources, subpoenas issued by one state to another state are normally legally invalid. Roberson's subpoena, then, was more of a friendly request for information. Blizzard had no legal obligation to provide any of Hightower's information to the Indiana police.
Now there's little expectation of privacy when playing online games, as some users have learned, but how far does traditional law enforcement power reach into online games? Can World of Warcraft users now expect Blizzard to voluntarily comply with out-of-state subpoenas even if they have no legal obligation to respond? And how much information can consumers expect Blizzard to divulge?
Legal Questions in Virtual Worlds
If the Hightower case is any example, Blizzard is happy to go above and beyond the limited scope of officers' requests, providing a cornucopia of useful information to law enforcement investigations. Massively took a stab at the thorny legal questions with some interesting research:
Blizzard, three months later, sent over a package of information that
included Hightower's IP address, surprising and stunning the Sheriff's
Department. This new information allowed Robertson and Rogers to trace
and pinpoint Hightower's location in Canada.
Indiana law enforcement filed extradition papers to bring Hightower back, and by all accounts it appears he'll be resting comfortably in an Indiana jail cell before too long. What's interesting is how much of the case was made using the information voluntarily provided by Blizzard. Everything fell within the letter of the law, though, so Hightower has little recourse.
It's an interesting situation, and the legal questions cut both ways. A virtual world proved instrumental in bringing a drug dealer to justice even across international borders, but also raised questions about how much Blizzard is willing to voluntarily provide out-of-state law enforcement officials.
Just because the Hightower bust panned out doesn't mean Blizzard's cooperation couldn't someday be used for harassment of a suspect. Blizzard may well respond differently if the account in question is a suspect instead of a fugitive. It would be nice to hear a solid statement from Blizzard's legal counsel about just where the company stands on voluntarily providing information to law enforcement officials.
What do you think? Should user accounts be fully accessible by law enforcement even if the company they request from has no legal obligation to provide data? We'll be following the case and reporting back as it develops.