A cybersecurity company whose security researcher had once been harassed by Blizzard employees at a hacking conference charged the game developer a 50 percent “misogyny tax” when it sought a quote for security services, according to a new report from Waypoint.
The researcher, Emily Mitchell, told Waypoint that she approached the Blizzard booth during the annual Black Hat USA cybersecurity conference in 2015 to see if the major video game company had any open positions. Her shirt, which referenced a security process known as “penetration testing,” prompted two unnamed Blizzard employees to ask her questions laced with misogyny and sexual double entendre.
“One of them asked me when was the last time I was personally penetrated, if I liked being penetrated, and how often I got penetrated,” Mitchell said. “I was furious and felt humiliated, so I took the free swag and left.”
Two years later, Blizzard approached cybersecurity firm Sagitta HPC (now known as Terahash) to request a quote on one of Sagitta HPC’s password-cracking boxes. Mitchell, who was Sagitta HPC’s chief operating officer at the time, saw Blizzard’s request and immediately remembered what occured at Black Hat USA 2015. After learning of the incident from Mitchell, Sagitta HPC founder and chief executive officer Jeremi M. Gosney responded to Blizzard’s inquiry with a lengthy message decrying her treatment at the hands of Blizzard’s employees.
“[R]ather than dismiss you and tell you that we will not do business with you, we’d like to give Blizzard the opportunity to redeem themselves,” Gosney wrote. (He eventually shared the email on Twitter with Blizzard’s name redacted.) “We are committed to combating inequality, and I am calling on Blizzard to do the same. As you may or may not know, today is International Women’s Day. And in honor of this day, we are attaching a few conditions if Blizzard wishes to do business with us.”
These conditions included a 50 percent “misogyny tax” on any business Sagitta HPC did with Blizzard (to be used as a donation to three different organizations devoted to support girls and women in the tech industry), Blizzard becoming a Gold-level sponsor of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference, and a formal letter of apology from Blizzard executives to Mitchell in which they’d further dedicate themselves to supporting equality for women and sexual harassment training.
The list of sponsors from that year’s the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing conference indicates that while Blizzard itself didn’t support the event, parent company Activision came in as a Silver-level corporate partner. Kotaku contacted Gosney for more information on the events surrounding his email to Blizzard, but didn’t hear back before publication.
“[Blizzard] made it clear that they were not interested in agreeing to any of our terms, just a lot of empty promises that they were taking the report ‘seriously,’ that it would be investigated internally, and assured me that they do conduct sexual harassment training,” Mitchell told Waypoint. “Ultimately it felt like they were more interested in gauging their own legal exposure and placating me.”
In 2017, the organizers of Black Hat USA, the Las Vegas hacking conference at which Mitchell was originally accosted, promised her that they would not allow Blizzard back as a sponsor for future events. As far as Kotaku can tell from historical information, neither Blizzard nor Activision have had a presence at the cybersecurity event since the year Blizzard staff harassed Mitchell.
Activision Blizzard is already in the gaming community’s crosshairs since last week’s bombshell revelation that the state of California is suing the company for a workplace culture that fostered years of abuse, harassment, and violence against female employees. The lawsuit specifically mentions the actions of former World of Warcraft creative director Alex Afrasiabi, references to whom Blizzard plans to remove from the MMO, and events that took place in Afrasiabi’s hotel room at BlizzCon 2013, known colloquially among a group of male employees as the “Cosby Suite.”
In the wake of this publicity, Waypoint also learned of a 2018 incident in which an Activision IT worker set up a camera in one of the Eden Prairie, Minnesota campus’ unisex bathrooms and recorded employees using the toilet. That worker, Tony Ray Nixon, was fired by Activision and ultimately pled guilty to an “Interference with Privacy” charge.
“Once this incident was reported to us, the Company began an investigation, promptly removed all unauthorized cameras, and notified the authorities,” Activision Blizzard told Waypoint. “The authorities conducted a thorough investigation, with the full cooperation of the Company. As soon as the authorities and Company identified the perpetrator, he was terminated for his abhorrent conduct. The Company provided crisis counselors to employees, onsite and virtually, and increased security.”
A large group of Activision Blizzard employees participated in an organized walkout earlier this week in protest of the company’s history of inaction in the face of intolerable harassment against women and minorities. The group’s demands included an end to forced arbitration for Activision Blizzard staff and a more diverse, worker-oriented approach to interviewing, recruiting, and hiring processes within the massive corporation.
Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick eventually addressed these concerns, calling earlier responses to the incidents in question “tone deaf,” but failing to impress the employees already planning the day-long work stoppage. The company has also hired a law firm known for previous union-busting efforts to help investigate the damning allegations, which doesn’t inspire much confidence in Activision Blizzard’s good intentions.
“This is the beginning of an enduring movement in favor of better labor conditions for all employees, especially women, in particular women of color and transgender women, nonbinary people, and other marginalized groups,” the employee coalition wrote in a follow-up statement. “We expect a prompt response and a commitment to action from leadership on the points enumerated above, and look forward to maintaining a constructive dialogue on how to build a better Activision Blizzard for all employees.”