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In 2001, Even Balance Inc., the developers of the anti-cheat software PunkBuster designed for Counter-Strike and Half-Life mods, stopped supporting the games as they had no support from Valve. Valve had also rejected business offers of integrating the technology directly into their games.
Valve started working on a “long-term solution” for cheating in 2001. VAC’s initial release was with Counter-Strike in 2002. During this initial release, the system only banned players for 24 hours. The duration of the ban was increased over time; players were banned for 1 year and 5 years, until VAC2 was released in 2005, when any new bans became permanent. VAC2 was announced in February 2005 and began beta testing the following month. On November 17, 2006, they announced that “new [VAC] technology” had caught “over 10,000” cheating attempts in the preceding week alone.
During the early testing phase in 2002, some information was revealed about the program via the Half-Life Dedicated Server mailing lists. It can detect versions of “OGC’s OpenGl Hack,” OpenGL cheats, and also detects CD key changers as cheats. Information on detected cheaters is sent to the ban list server on IP address 126.96.36.199 on port 27013, which was later changed to 27011. There is also a “master ban list” server. RAM/hardware errors detected by VAC may kick the player from the server, but not ban them.
Eric Smith and Nick Shaffner were the original contacts for game administrators. In February 2010, the VAC Team consisted of Steam’s lead engineer John Cook and his team of 16 engineers.
In July 2010, several players who successfully used information leaked from Valve to increase their chances of finding a rare Team Fortress 2 weapon/tool called the Golden Wrench found themselves banned by VAC. During the same month, approximately 12,000 owners of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 were banned when Steam updated a DLL file on-disk after it had been loaded into memory by the game, causing a false positive detection. These bans were revoked and those affected received a free copy of Left 4 Dead 2 or an extra copy to send as a gift.
In February 2014, rumors spread that the system was monitoring websites users had visited by accessing their DNS cache. Gabe Newell responded via Reddit, clarifying that the purpose of the check was to act as a secondary counter-measure to detect kernel level cheats, and that it affected one tenth of one percent of clients checked which resulted in 570 bans.
As of May 2016, the system began banning accounts that were registered with the same phone number. Additionally, a phone number that was used on an account at the time it was banned will not be allowed to be re-registered on other accounts for three months.
The system has been criticized for failing to detect LMAOBOX, a popular cheat program for Team Fortress 2, until May 2016, which resulted in a wave of bans.
In February 2017, Valve announced plans to introduce a machine-learning approach to detecting cheats in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and that an initial version of the system was already in place, which would automatically mark players for manual detection by players through the “Overwatch” system.
Valve rarely discusses the software, as it may help cheaters write new code or conduct social engineering.
The software sends client challenges to the machine; if the appropriate response is not received, it is flagged as a possible violation. It uses Signature Scanning to detect possible cheats when scanning the computer’s memory and processes. Whenever an anomaly is detected, an incident report is created and compared to a database of banned applications and/or analyzed by Valve engineers. The engineers may inspect the code and run it on their own copies of the game. If the code is confirmed as a new cheat, it is added to the database of cheat codes.
According to Steam’s lead engineer John Cook, to stop the anti-cheat software itself from being exploited, “The software is constantly updated and sent down in small portions for the servers as needed, so hackers only get to see small portions of it running at any particular time. So while they may be able to work around pieces of it, they can never hack everything.”
Valve also accepts submissions of cheat programs and cheat websites from players by email. Players may also report players they suspect of cheating through their Steam Community profile, although players are not banned from these reports alone.
If a cheat is found, the player’s Steam account will be flagged as cheating immediately, but the player will not receive any indication of the detection. It is only after a delay of “days or even weeks” that the account is permanently banned from “VAC Secure” servers for that game, possibly along with other games that use the same engine (e.g. Valve’s Source games, GoldSrc games