Valve rebuffs Steam browser spying allegations

Life
Valve MD Gabe Newell

19 February 2014

Valve managing director Gabe Newell has defended his company’s anti-cheating system, assuring users the company has no interest in collecting data on browsing habits.

Newell took to Reddit yesterday to discuss Valve’s Anti-Cheat system (VAC). Rumours had spread recently that VAC was logging users’ browser histories and sending them off to Valve. For obvious privacy reasons, people were mortified.

The actual circumstances are, as expected, a bit more complicated.

Cheating in video games is an arms race. People cheat. Companies plug the holes that allowed cheating. People find other holes. And the world goes round and round.

“For a game like Counter-Strike, there will be thousands of cheats created, several hundred of which will be actively in use at any given time,” wrote Newell. “There will be around 10-20 groups trying to make money selling cheats.”

Since the Venn diagram of “People who cheat at video games” and “People who are bad” overlaps quite a bit, it’s not surprising that many of those who cheat also don’t want to pay for their cheats. Thus the people who develop cheats have their own little arms race – the cheats actively employ DRM to phone home to a server and certify payment.

“VAC checked for the presence of these cheats. If they were detected, VAC then checked to see which cheat DRM server was being contacted. This second check was done by looking for a partial match to those (non-Web) cheat DRM servers in the DNS cache,” writes Newell. “If found, then hashes of the matching DNS entries were sent to the VAC servers.”

As a result of these checks, 570 people are being banned from Steam.

And to show you how quickly this arms race evolves: This test was effective for less than two weeks. “It is now no longer active as the cheat providers have worked around it by manipulating the DNS cache of their customers’ client machines.”

For his part, Newell said he believed the rumours about VAC tracking browser history may have been started by the cheaters themselves to cast a poor light on the system.

“If ‘Valve is evil – look they are tracking all of the websites you visit’ is an idea that gets traction, then that is to the benefit of cheaters and cheat creators,” wrote Newell. It’s easier for cheaters to stir up controversy and turn people against VAC until it dies than to continually create new cheats and find new holes for an indefinite period of time.

So does Valve care what porn sites people visit? “Oh, dear god, no. My brain just melted,” wrote Newell.

PC World

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