Valve denies accusations of spying on Steam users

You can learn a lot of things through user-generated social news site, Reddit. That a neuroscientist has invented an app to make you see farther, for instance, or that African elephants are able to console each other when distressed.

The latest revelation, however, is a little more sinister. According to one Reddit user, video game developer Valve is quietly going through your browser history and sending the data it finds back to its servers.

Essentially, the post claimed that Valve's anti-cheat service (known as VAC) is monitoring Steam users' DNS cache and mining it for a list of domains you go on to visit. Understandably in this post-Snowden era, the revelation turned customers into very unhappy bunnies indeed.

However as is so often the case, the situation is actually a little more complicated than that.

It turns out that Valve's managing director, Gabe Newell, is actually not that fussed about the strange, even horrifying things you do on the Internet when you're not playing games through the company's Steam service.

Newell posted his own reply to the allegations on Reddit and shed some light on exactly what VAC does. The long and short of it is that he admitted Valve does grab a very small amount of data in a minute handful of cases, data which is then used to help ban people who use specially-written cheat software to get an unfair advantage over other players in Counter Strike, Team Fortress 2 and Dota 2.

"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," Newell explains. "There will be around ten to twenty groups trying to make money selling cheats."

In other words, a black economy is being created where users cheat the game, developers close the loopholes that allow the cheating, other people then find other loopholes and create unfair software that they sell on to allow more cheating.

However, often the everyday pretenders who buy these cheats are unwilling to cough up the cash (they are hypocrites after all). Consequently, the developers of the cheats need to ensure they're getting paid, and they do so by actively employing DRM (a method of controlling access to copyrighted digital material) to phone home to a server and certify a payment.

To combat this, Newell says that VAC checked for the presence of cheats being deployed. If discovered, "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."

Thanks to this system, 570 fraudulent users were banned from Steam. So does Valve care what porn sites you visit? "Oh, dear god, no," writes Newell, "My brain just melted."

Clearly then, we can get back to looking up videos of excitable baby penguins without the fear of Gabe Newell peering over our shoulders, silently judging. Which is good news really, what with the whole of the NSA already back there it was getting rather crowded.