Why Do I Suddenly Have To Log In Now To Use The Graphics Card I’ve Had For Years?

Gaming can be, well, a kind of consumer-unfriendly industry. Players who build and upgrade their own PCs, though, usually expect a level of control over their experience that console gaming may not offer. And anything that changes that is not likely to go over well, as a change to certain Nvidia software is demonstrating.

PC gaming enthusiasts, unlike console players, get to pick what parts make their computer run. The graphics card, or GPU, is likely to be the most expensive single part most players put into a gaming PC. They run $200 – $700 each, and at their most basic are the key part that make games look pretty and go fast.

Tech company Nvidia is far and away the most popular maker of graphics cards among PC gamers. The Steam hardware survey, which is a reasonably decent proxy, currently finds about 58% of players are using Nvidia hardware. (ATI, Nvidia’s main competitor, comes in second place with a share of about 24%.)

When you install an Nvidia GPU into your computer, it comes with a piece of management software called the GeForce Experience that lets you access all the card’s many features and settings. It’s been bundled with Nvidia cards for years, but the most recent version — 3.0, automatically downloading to users’ systems now — comes with a major change that’s making some users unhappy: a mandatory login.

In order to use most features of the GeForce experience, Nvidia card owners now have to create an account (or link to their Facebook or Google profiles) and log in to the program with a username and password. Given that a GPU is a piece of hardware that works perfectly well offline and does not require an internet connection to do its job, this has struck some players as questionable at best. Especially as the software is specifically tied to optimizing the hardware on one specific PC — this is not a thing you will need to log into and access remotely or from another device.

So, being curious, we asked Nvidia why version 3.0 requires a login to use features that had previously been available to all users without logging in, and what the benefits to Nvidia and the consumer were from requiring the login now.

In response, a spokesperson for Nvidia told Consumerist, “Users with an account can take advantage of the latest GeForce Experience release features including GameStream pairing, Share technology, and more, as well as random prizes and giveaways. They can also leave feedback directly within the application as well.”

All of which is a well-phrased selling point, but not terribly useful for answering consumers’ questions.

However, a real answer is pretty much front and center. Unique user accounts sure are great for one big thing: marketing stuff.

Version 3.0 includes a big ol’ splash screen showing “several tiles that display details about GeForce news and features, partner games, and more when clicked on,” as PC World put it. That makes marketing stuff to you even more central to the Experience than it previously had been.

But any data collection comes with one big question: what of privacy?

The GeForce Experience FAQ splits the data the app collects into two pools: identifiable and aggregated. Only the aggregate data goes outside the company, Nvidia says: “GeForce Experience does not share any personally identifiable information outside the company. NVIDIA may share aggregate-level data with select partners, but does not share user-level data.”

The data it does collect is subject to Nvidia’s existing privacy policy, which does, of course, say that your information will be used for marketing purposes. While it will not sell your data, Nvidia’s policy says, “We may from time to time share your Personal Information with our business partners, resellers, affiliates, service providers, consulting partners and others in an effort to better serve you.”

When asked about collecting personal data, the Nvdia representative specified that the Geforce Experience collects data needed to recommend the correct driver update and optimal game settings — that’s mostly system-level data, including hardware configuration, operating system, language, installed games, game settings, and current driver version, and it’s all data that previous versions of GeForce would have needed to collect as well.

“We utilize multiple layers of security, both active and passive to protect our customer’s identity,” Nvidia said. “This includes active monitoring and blocking of traffic, logging, various levels of encryption, rapid incident response and remediation. Nvidia is fully compliant with both federal and local privacy regulations.”

In short: game publishers get aggregate data about how people are playing their games, and you eventually get some targeted ads. In this, your Nvidia software joins a long list of basically everything else that operates that way. The difference is, it didn’t work that way when consumers dropped $500 on a product, and opting out by choosing a new product has a very high cost.

The good news for Nvidia GPU owners, such as it is, is that while GeForce experience is convenient and centralized, it’s not actually mandatory to use. You can still download drivers directly from the website, choose optimal game performance settings using in-game menus, and set display settings using Windows options. And while the ability to run a framerate counter, upload, stream, or record directly from the GeForce experience is handy, it’s not the only software that can do so. PC gaming platforms like Steam, Origin, and even Xbox Live (in Windows 10) offer recording functions, Twitch or YouTube integration, and/or screenshot capabilities, as do third-party applications.

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