- Enid Burns for redOrbit.com - 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."
- April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Science fiction borrows from, and sometimes anticipates, the state of the art in scientific progress. This can be seen from warp drives to hyperspace, and has resulted in the perception that science and science fiction have a causal relationship. People assume that science finds direction from and fulfills the science fantasy laid out before it.
According to Lawrence Krauss, a Foundation professor in the School of Space and Earth Exploration and the Department of Physics at Arizona State University, this is rarely the case. Krauss admits that science fiction has taken inspiration from the cutting edge science of its day. It is also true, as Stephen Hawking wrote in the preface to Krauss's bestselling book, 'The Physics of Star Trek,' science fiction helps inspire our imaginations. Despite this, Krauss believes that science fiction is not a match for reality.
"Truth is stranger than fiction," Krauss, a renowned theoretical physicist and science popularizer, said at the 2014 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago. His talk, "Physics of the future," was part of a session entitled "Where's my flying car? Science, science fiction and a changing vision of the future."
"The imagination of nature far exceeds the human imagination, which is why we constantly need to probe the universe via experimentation to make progress," he said. "In fact, I tend to think that what makes science fiction most interesting is what they missed, not what they got right."
Krauss cited such examples as the World Wide Web, developed at the CERN scientific laboratory, and which governs the world in ways we could never have anticipated. Another example given was H. G. Wells' "The World Set Free," which is often quoted as a prophetic book. The novel was published in 1914 and anticipated the development of atomic weapons that would be used in war. Decades before they became a harsh reality in the modern world — and perhaps influencing some of the scientists who created the real weapons — the novel coined the term "atomic bombs."
"Nevertheless not only did Wells' continually burning atomic weapons bear no resemblance to the engines of destruction in the real world," Krauss emphasized, "he thought it would unite the world into one society whereas we are painfully aware that it hasn't changed human thinking, except to divide the world into nuclear haves and have-nots."
"Nevertheless it is instructive, and fun, to compare the 'science' of science fiction with that of the real world," said Krauss, who also is the director of the Origins Project at ASU. "Rather than dwelling on things that don't work, it is fun to explore closely related things in the real world that might work."
A variety of classical science fiction standbys were the focus of Krauss's talk — including space exploration, faster than light travel, time travel and teleportation. In science fiction, space travelers move freely about the universe, fulfilling their manifest destiny in space, while in reality, we remain stuck on Earth. According to Krauss, the reality of the situation is vastly different. The cost of space travel is exorbitantly high, in both money and energy. It is a very risky endeavor and humans, as "hundred-pound bags of water," are not built for space.
Krauss did have positive news for science fiction lovers. He described how exotica live warp drive and time travel are not ruled out by our current knowledge of the laws of nature. From a practical perspective, however, even if they are possible in principle, they are likely to be impossible in practice. While he doubts that people will ever be "beamed" from one place to another, quantum teleportation may revolutionize computing in ways that science fiction has just begun to come to grips with.
Krauss has authored more than 300 scientific publications and nine books, including the international bestseller 'The Physics of Star Trek,' a tour of the Star Trek universe and our universe, and 'Beyond Star Trek,' which addressed recent exciting discoveries in physics and astronomy and takes a look at how the laws of physics relate to notions from popular culture.
Krauss concluded his talk with the prediction that the future of science fiction is fraught with problems.
"The best part of physics of the future is that we have no idea what the exciting discoveries of the future will be," he said. "If I knew what the next big thing would be, I would be working on it now!"
Image 2 (below): Lawrence Krauss, Foundation professor at Arizona State University, says science fact is stranger than science fiction. Credit: Tom Story, Arizona State University