Digital Underground: Cyber Thugs, Police, and Virtual Investigations (2 of 8)

The virtual world of online gaming seems like the perfect place to hide. There is plenty of anonymity, and it’s almost impossible for someone to trace activity back to its source, right? Wrong.[1] As technology advances, criminals are finding more and more ways to commit crimes and police are finding innovative ways to stay a step ahead of criminals. Today criminals may use social media sites in a many ways such as planning a robbery, and even identifying and interacting with potential victims.[2]

Police used World of Warcraft to find a suspect who was wanted on drug charges. The suspect had skipped the country after a warrant was issued for his arrest.[3] But he didn’t stop playing World of Warcraft and that’s how police caught him.[4] Police used the suspect’s IP address to locate him in Canada.[5] A quick Internet search of the IP address gave the officer longitude and latitude of the suspect’s location. From there, they were able to pinpoint the location using Google Earth.[6] The arrest marks one of the first times that a fugitive had been located through the game world.[7] The new story went viral and sparked many debates about whether the game’s developer, Blizzard Entertainment, was within its rights to divulge information about its players to law enforcement.[8]

Violation of privacy is just one of the concerns law enforcement officials face when gathering evidence using the Internet. Many World of Warcraft players may believe that Blizzard Entertainment violated the suspect’s privacy rights by handing over personal information. However, sharing this information was well within Blizzard’s rights. According to World of Warcraft’s End User License Agreement, the suspect acknowledged and agreed that:


Blizzard may, with or without notice to you, disclose your Internet Protocol (IP) address(es), personal information, chat logs, and other information about you and your activities: (a) in response to a request by law enforcement, a court order or other legal process; or (b) if Blizzard believes that doing so may protect your safety or the safety of others.[9]

BLIZZARD MAY MONITOR, RECORD, REVIEW, MODIFY AND/OR DISCLOSE YOUR CHAT SESSIONS, WHETHER VOICE OR TEXT, WITHOUT NOTICE TO YOU, AND YOU HEREBY CONSENT TO SUCH MONITORING, RECORDING, REVIEW, MODIFICATION AND/OR DISCLOSURE. Additionally, you acknowledge that Blizzard is under no obligation to monitor your electronic communications, and you engage in those communications at your own risk.[10]

In this case, the police officer went through the proper channels to access the suspect’s information. However, gathering evidence in this manner still leaves many people uneasy. How do they know that police aren’t just accessing this information at will. World of Warcraft and other social media sites such as Facebook, and Twitter introduce a potential risk to individuals’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties if unauthorized or inappropriate access or use occurs.[11]

Conducting a criminal investigation using a social media site is not that different from conducting any other criminal investigation. Many law enforcement agencies view social media sites as just another tool in the law enforcement investigative toolbox.[12] However, police should use social media sites in a manner that adheres to the same principles that govern all law enforcement activity. Therefore, their actions must be lawful and personnel must have a defined objective and a valid law enforcement purpose for gathering, maintaining, or sharing personally identifiable information attained from the site.[13]

Police departments should develop a social media policy to ensure that individuals’ and groups’ privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties are protected.[14] The policy should include training on the appropriate use of social media resources to ensure that use of the social media resource complies with applicable federal and state laws.[15] The social media policy should also include training to help police understand the concept and function of the sites, as well as training about how social media tools and resources can be used to prevent, mitigate, respond to, and investigate criminal activity.[16]

The next blog will explore social media policies further and review how actual police departments are using these policies to investigate crimes on social networks.

[1] Brian Crecente, “Blizzard Helps Cops Track Down WoW Suspected Drug Dealer,” Kotaku- The Gamer’s Guide (December 31, 2009, 11:00 AM),

[2] Vernon M. Keenan et al., Developing Policy on Using Social Media for Intelligence and Investigations, INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION of CHIEFS of POLICE Global Leadership in Policing, (February 2013), p.2

[3] Patrick Munsey, Long arm of law reaches into World of Warcraft, (December 31, 2009, 1:00 AM),

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Patrick Munsey, World of Warcraft Story Goes Viral, (January 14, 2010, 1:00 AM),

[8]  Id.

[9] World of Warcraft End User License Agreement, Blizzard Entertainment,, (last updated August 22, 2012).

[10] Id.

[11] Vernon M. Keenan et al., Developing Policy on Using Social Media for Intelligence and Investigations, INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION of CHIEFS of POLICE Global Leadership in Policing, (February 2013) p. 2,

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id. at 7.

[16] Id.

2 Responses to “Digital Underground: Cyber Thugs, Police, and Virtual Investigations (2 of 8)”

  1. Although the police went through the “proper channels” in obtaining the information, it seems that they did little more than pressure Blizzard. They did not obtain a court order to force Blizzard to give up the information and they did not attempt to use any alternative channels (EX: contacting him in WoW using an undercover avatar to get close to him). Although Blizzard must be cognizant in their EULA’s, I think they owe a certain duty of confidentiality to their customers; particularly when we think about how the anonymous nature of online gaming draws a number of customers, which in turn has allowed Blizzard to be fruitful. Although Blizzard clearly didn’t do anything wrong, it’s easy to see how brand loyalty may be eroded when they set the precedent of full disclosure to law enforcement agencies.
    In thinking about how Facebook and social media may be used by law enforcement, I agree that police should be trained on when/how to appropriately use these tools. To me it seems like anything on the internet is fair game–a digital era “plain view” doctrine if you will. On that note, should officers be required to adhere to a different standard than the everyday person? Using that logic it would be unreasonable to ask an officer to turn a blind eye to something the ordinary citizen would see. In the context of Facebook, if your profile is public and depicts you engaging in criminal conduct, why should the officer be forced to not view it simply because they are a law enforcement officer. That’s not to say, of course, that these new avenues of investigation are ripe for abuse and certain standards must be implemented to protect the unknowing public. But who should bear the burden? The police, the public or the developers?

  2. There was another case in Indiana where police were looking for a suspected killer whom they believed to be a teen who spent an incredible number of hours in a virtual world. The state police advised the local police department to send an undercover agent into the game world and talk to the teen’s virtual “neighbors” and friends. Ultimately the local police failed/refused to do so. They couldn’t wrap their minds around the fact this would be an undercover investigation…just in a different reality.

    I believe the NYC Police did adopt social media standards last year. The policy was referred to in the news but for the life of me I couldn’t put my hands on a copy of it. Yes, there are privacy rights that can be implicated, but just like in the real world, our right to privacy is not absolute, particularly when we are bent on violating criminal law. As a general rule, today you will find just about every ToS or EULA includes a passage that allows the developer to turn over information if there has been criminal wrong doing. It is getting hazy in my mind now, but I think the prosecutors in the WoW case served Blizzard with a subpoena for the information.

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