Valve CEO Takes Rare Opportunity To Discuss Anti-Cheat Measures
February 18, 2014

Valve CEO Takes Rare Opportunity To Discuss Anti-Cheat Measures

Enid Burns for - Your Universe Online

A heated discussion on Reddit has brought a game company into the spotlight to share details of its anti-cheating measures. Valve CEO Gabe Newell posted to the Reddit thread to explain the company's actions after it was said that the gaming company collects information on the web-browsing activities of all of its players.

The Reddit discussion initially started over the weekend by a user posting under the name "theonlybond." The poster made several accusations about Valve's practices such as that it goes through all DNS Cache entries; hashes each one with md5; and reports back to VAC servers.

The accusations assert that Valve Software, which develops games and runs a game service called Steam, tracks every website visited by people who use the service to play games online.

While theonlybond offered details on how online activity of Steam users is tracked, he called into question the frequency of data collection conducted by Valve.

"We don't know how long this information is kept on their servers, maybe forever, maybe a few days. It's probably done everytime [sic] you join a vac server. It seems they are moving from detecting the cheats themselves to computer forensics. Relying on leftover data from using the cheats. This has been done by other anticheats, like punkbuster and resulted in false bans. Although im [sic] not saying they will ban people from simply visiting the site, just that it can be easily exploited," theonlybond wrote.

When discussion on Valve's practices became red hot, Newell stepped in with clarification, stating that Valve does not generally discuss VAC (the company's counter-hacking system).

"This time is going to be an exception," he wrote.

Newell explained that details are not often discussed "because it creates more opportunities for cheaters to attack the system."

The VAC practice where Valve collects data on the browsing habits of users is very specific. The system takes advantage of a signal that is sent back to the cheat dealers, which Newell refers to as the cheats "phoning home" to a DRM server that confirms that a cheater has actually paid to use the cheat.

"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. If found, then hashes of the matching DNS entries were sent to the VAC servers. The match was double checked on our servers and then that client was marked for a future ban. Less than a tenth of one percent of clients triggered the second check. 570 cheaters are being banned as a result," Newell revealed.

Newell pointed out that the measures described in the thread were effective for about 13 days before the cheat providers devised a workaround.

"Kernel-level cheats are expensive to create, and they are expensive to detect. Our goal is to make them more expensive for cheaters and cheat creators than the economic benefits they can reasonably expect to gain," Newell wrote.

The act of cheats "phoning home" is actually in response to cheaters who don't want to pay for cheats. Gamasutra reported that Newell stressed that issue in his post.

"The core issue, he says, is that the people who create cheats for online games are finding that players are simply downloading cheats for free rather than paying for them -- and so, in return, these cheat creators are putting DRM in place," Gamasutra's Mike Rose wrote.

In addition to hacking the system to supply cheats, Newell points to social engineering as another tactic, which helps hackers market cheats to players.

"There is also a social engineering side to cheating, which is to attack people's trust in 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. VAC is inherently a scary looking piece of software, because it is trying to be obscure, it is going after code that is trying to attack it, and it is sneaky. For most cheat developers, social engineering might be a cheaper way to attack the system than continuing the code arms race, which means that there will be more Reddit posts trying to cast VAC in a sinister light," Newell wrote.

Newell concluded his response on the forum with a justification for Valve's actions. "Our response is to make it clear what we were actually doing and why with enough transparency that people can make their own judgements as to whether or not we are trustworthy."