I assume you are here because you have had a problem with Steam/ Valve and their Valve Anti-Cheat system. I am sorry to hear that.

If you are frustrated, disillusioned, angry, or just curious, please read on...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Valve 1 v Users 0

When is a "permanent" ban, not permanent?

Oh, this is so easy to answer. A Valve-Anti-Cheat ban is only permanent as long as you are not prepared to pay them some money.

What's that you say, "But surely, if a ban is placed on a user for using cheats - and they have a 'zero tolerance' for such actions - then they can never be allowed to play again!"

OK, say that, but you are wrong...

I quote from the 'standard' answer to any enquiry about being banned,
"If you choose to purchase a new copy of the VAC banned game(s), please create a new Steam account to register the games on..." 
But wait, don't Valve also say that they will basically determine whether or not you are a "cheat" and ban you without telling you how, why or when? Yes, that's it.

So just to be clear...

  1. You go and buy a Steam game and register an account
  2. You use it for a while
  3. Valve determines that you are a cheat (you may or may not be, but that is irrelevant to them)
  4. You are banned from playing the game you paid for on secure servers
  5. You have no right of appeal
  6. If you want to play again, just go an buy another copy, create a new account and... off you go!
It's pretty clear to me who wins from this: Valve 1 v Users 0

A special mention of GameInformer magazine

Well, here we are a few weeks later... nothing has changed... Valve still don't respond to any questions...

I must say, I was  impressed with so make special mention of GamerInformer magazine. They recognise the frustration and disappointment that some players - such as my son - have experienced and we happy to print my letter to their editor in the current edition (refer to http://gameinformer.com/mag/default.aspx).

Thanks GameInformer!!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A response from Valve

Below are the core paragraphs of the response received from Doug Valente on behalf of Gabe and Steam:
"I have audited the ban on your son's account.  This audit verified that your son's account did connect to a Valve Anti-Cheat (VAC)-protected server with a cheat running.  A VAC infraction still allows him to play online on non-VAC protected servers (he needs to uncheck the VAC Protected option in the server browser). The infraction does not affect the Left 4 Dead titles, single-player games or third party titles.

"Valve instituted VAC to preserve a cheat-free playing environment for the majority of our game users who prefer to compete against other players without cheat technologies.  A VAC ban applies only to a set of Valve games covered by VAC.  A VAC banned account does not lose the ability to play those games online; rather, the account is restricted to playing those games on servers that do not implement VAC.  There are many of these servers around the world, and they can be found via Steam.

"As a rule, we do not disclose information about specific VAC infraction(s), so cheat creators don't get a critical piece of intelligence to help them circumvent VAC with new cheats.  Cheats are a serious threat to game play, which is why Valve publicizes VAC, in the Steam Subscriber Agreement as you noted and on Valve websites and user forums. 

"Your son's account was hijacked previously (May 2010) when he put his login credentials into a phishing site. He contacted Valve again in September of this year because he forgot his password, which we reset.  Now your son's account used cheats within a VAC protected game.  I'm afraid that your son is solely responsible for the security of his account and any activity that occurs on the account.  At this point, he needs to use the protected games on non-VAC servers. "
Immediately noting that there is at least one error of fact in all of this, and that there is a total disregard of my request for details held about my son (made in my view in accordance with their own privacy policy!) I will respond further in due course.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Is the Valve Anti Cheat functionality in Steam a privacy risk?

Before the beginning

OK, if you play games on-line via Valves's Steam software you will (if course) have read Clause 5 of the Subscriber Agreement. In case you haven't, it says in part that the Steam software,
"...may include functionality designed to identify software or hardware processes or functionality that may give a player an unfair competitive advantage when playing multiplayer versions of any Software...".
How does it do this? I have no idea.

What information about what is on you computer is sent to Valve? Again, I have no idea.

Can you find out what information they have about you or your computer? In my recent experience, nope.

Are you worried about this? Maybe not and if so, that's fine. If you are just a bit concerned, read on...

The hack

My son is 15 and has been playing games via  Steam system for almost 3 years - since he was 12. 

We live in Sydney, Australia and Valve Software is based in or near Seattle WA in the USA.

Earlier this year my son’s use of the Steam system was disrupted due to his account being “hijacked”. We determined that this was a result of him falling for a “phishing” scam and Valve Software was great in helping him reset his password and reclaiming his account.

His Steam account was again hijacked in September. We couldn’t figure out how but Valve Software was, again, great in helping him reclaim his account. He had obviously learned not to respond to phishing scams and I subsequently confirmed that there were no known trojans or key-loggers running on his PC so it remains a mystery to us how it happened on this occasion. 

All seems fine at this point... yes, but read on.

The VAC ban

In early October my son tried to login to play one of his games. He received a message to the effect that he has been banned from playing Steam games on-line.

We initially assumed that this was due to an issue identified while his account was hijacked. We assumed Valve would be happy to assist so we re-opened the case via support. WRONG!

Their response was a copy and paste from The I've Been Banned page on their site. To save reading it, it basically says:

  1. you are responsible for any actions under your account
  2. if your account gets hijacked - that's your problem
  3. we won't tell you what the 'cheats' were
  4. we won't tell you when they were detected
  5. we ignore any requests for information about points 3 or 4

The obvious problem

So what's the problem you ask? "Your son obviously installed some form of 'cheat' to get an unfair advantage over other on-line players", you might say, "He deserves to be banned!".

Sorry, but I must be one of those idealists who insists on some degree of justice. If he has some cheat installed - and Valve can verify that for me - that's absolutely fine. I agree with their zero-tolerance policy.

Besides, are you sure that their software is faultless - yes, we know that all software is, don't we?! 

I suspect my/ our experience is not unusual. There is some very interesting stuff to have a look at on what these others understand or have experienced:
The real issues

What information has Steam got about you and what's on your computer?
  1. Despite Valve's  Privacy Policy, it seems that you can’t find out what information they have about you. I've asked twice and they still haven't responded.
  2. By signing the Steam subscriber Agreement users acknowledge and accept the running on their computers of code, “designed to identify software or hardware processes or functionality that may give a player an unfair competitive advantage when playing”, which would be fair enough if they gave you any (let alone honest) answers to 1. above
  3.  The whole issue of Steam/ Valve refusing to identify what cheats have been identified or when means that there is no natural justice to the process. There is simply no avenue for appeal or to escalate the issue
In my view Valve has labelled my son a cheat – possibly without justification and certainly without adequate explanation.

Because our son is a child, I would wonder if their actions could be classified as an a breach of Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? OK, this might not be a major issue compared to events affecting people in 3rd world countries. 

Still, if someone caused something untrue (potentially defamatory?) to be published about you or someone close to you (e.g. on http://www.vacbanned.com/) wouldn’t you be as incensed as we are?

The solution?

Sorry, if you're here looking for one at this stage, I can't give you any hope.

I have tried to escalate this beyond support (they do as they say, don't respond, and just keep closing the case) and have taken to sending emails to a range of third parties who may be interested. 

Just for good measure, I have cc'd Valve's MD (Gabe Newell) on everything. He did acknowlede the first email, but hasn't responded since. I guess I'm probably categorised as spam now.

Anyway, I'll try to keep you updated on how it all progresses.