Skip to main content

Valve Breaks 'Steam Spy' With New Privacy Settings

Earlier this week, Valve announced that it was updating Steam with new privacy settings that were supposed to help gamers keep more information to themselves. The company also made an unannounced change: Game libraries are now private instead of being public by default. That change will help protect Steam users' privacy, but it also effectively broke Steam Spy, a popular analytics tool that relies on that data.

Steam is something like the default store for many PC gamers. Large publishers, indie developers, and everyone in between relies on Valve's platform to sell and distribute their wares. Because all of those purchases are tied to individual accounts, which also reveal a player's most recently played titles and how much time they've spent in specific games, this popularity makes Steam a good source of data about PC gaming.

The problem is sifting through a bunch of Steam profiles to get at that information. Steam Spy did that for you by automatically scanning profiles to learn more about what games are popular at any given time. The tool is quite popular--its creator, Sergey Galyonkin, brings in $7,670 via Patreon each month. But Galyonkin took to Twitter to explain that Valve's changes to Steam's privacy settings will essentially blind Steam Spy:

Valve just made a change to their privacy settings, making games owned by Steam users hidden by default. [...] Steam Spy relied on this information being visible by default and won't be able to operate anymore.

Galyonkin also clarified that making everyone's game library private by default is separate from the changes Valve discussed in its blog post. (For our purposes, we've lumped this decision in with "privacy settings," because Valve is changing a default setting that affects user privacy.) The goals are the same--protecting Steam users' privacy--but changing the default settings for game libraries has the side effect of blocking Steam Spy.

Privacy Vs Convenience Is Always Give And Take

We often see things break any time a platform works to improve user privacy. Just look at Facebook's changes following the Cambridge Analytica scandal: In its efforts to prevent app developers from gathering a bunch of information, Facebook inadvertently broke Tinder. Developers are used to having access to specific data or systems. Changing how those things are accessed or denying access to them poses a real problem.

Often this tradeoff comes down to what the platform values more, enabling third-party developers or protecting their users' privacy. With the increased scrutiny that's bound to follow the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the general trend of consumers paying more attention to how their personal information is used, it's no surprise that Valve decided on the latter with these updates. Sometimes spying just isn't allowed.