Watch Dogs is a wake-up call on internet security
Out at the end of May, Ubisoft’s dark thriller is set in a world where everyone’s data is available to warring tech factions
theguardian.com, Wednesday 7 May 2014 10.42 EDT
In Watch Dogs, every smartphone can be hacked, giving players access to the personal information of other characters – but it’s all based on real-life scenarios
Most of the time, game protagonists occupy worlds that are utterly fantastical, bearing little resemblance to our own reality. From the space marines of Halo to the artifact-grabbing archeologists of Tomb Raider and Uncharted, our exploits in games are as relatable as blockbuster popcorn cinema. It is all about escapism.
But when a game’s world and the activities of its protagonist start to look like something out of everyday life, it can be unnerving. Owing to the agency conferred on us in this interactive medium, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality can make us feel complicit in the acts we carry out on screen. After all, in video games we often operate by a moral code that we would never replicate in real life. We do questionable things in games.
And this is part of their power, of course. Video games are the only mainstream medium where audience members are active participants; in titles such as Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto it’s up to you who dies and who doesn’t – and we all respond to that power in different ways.
We like to watch
It’s a notion that gamers are likely to become extremely conscious of while playing Watch Dogs. Ubisoft’s open-world tech-noir thriller, set in an alternative version of modern Chicago, instills a sense of responsibility that many similar action adventures don’t – and this is probably because its paranoia-inducing premise is closer to reality than most of us would like it to be.
The game’s masked protagonist, Aiden Pearce, is a hacker able to gain access to everything from the personal records of a passing smartphone users to government computer infrastructures. Something terrible has happened in his past and now he’s seeking revenge on the shadowy corpration that run’s the city’s Central Operating System – a vast all-powerful computer. Pearce is able to scramble the traffic lights at intersections or deploy sleeping policemen in the paths of speeding cars turning them into piles of shattered glass and twisted metal. He can also take control of security cameras and use them to spy on the civilians wandering about around him.
All of this is accomplished though Aiden’s smartphone and players can access it at anytime; simply choose a passer-by, hack their phone and the life of this computer generated person is open to you. Wandering through the city, you can read the text messages of love-struck teenagers; you can listen in on the conversation between two sisters as one berates the other for being a lousy mother to her four-year-old daughter. It’s even possible to lift the bank details off someone’s phone and later access their account at an ATM. In short, hacking systems in Watch Dogs, is one of the most intoxicating power trips players are likely to experience all year.
The lead character can gain access to the city’s infrastructure as well as mobile phones. Doing the latter can often instigate side-quests
There’s just one aspect that players should be conscious of when they sit down at the game’s controls: every single hack in Watch Dogs is based on real-world examples. Every single one. This sounds absurd when one considers that the list of items Pearce is able to crack includes cars, fork-lifts and public utilities. However, according to Alistair Paterson, CEO of Digital Shadow – a company that works to secure the digital footprints of corporations and individuals – the only discrepancy here is one of convenience. “Pretty much all of those [hacks] would be possible,” he says. “The timeliness and the convenience of performing them with one click on a smartphone is not there yet. But in some cases it could be.”
So, a hacker could be listening in to your smartphone chat? “Almost anything connected to the internet can be hacked,” says Paterson. “The latest reports from security researchers show you can even hack cars. Cars are now just really computers with wheels so when someone comes to repair your vehicle they usually bring a laptop these days. They’re very much vulnerable. It’s gone as far as pacemakers, which can also be hacked.”
Jonathan Morin, Creative Director on Watch Dogs says that the development team in Montreal studied real-world hacking and learned how it’s done and where the latest threats are coming from, but he also took the decision to make every hack as easy as possible – just to keep the game’s pace running steadily. “It’s impossible to do all of that hacking with just the press of a button on your phone,” he says, “but it’s possible to hack every target in the game. Tapping into someone else’s phone is easy enough to do from a smartphone – once you have the right system.”
Everything’s connected all the time
What makes all of this possible? According to Paterson it has a lot to do with the fact that Western society has become wholly dependent on internet-connected devices – there are now more of them than there are people on the planet. By 2020 there could be around 50bn connected devices in use, which equate to nearly every technological convenience one interacts with on a day-to-day basis in the developed world. We’ve all heard about the internet of things – the idea that everything from your washing machine to your central heating system could be online and accessible from wherever you are. But with the convenience, comes the potential of abuse.
“Your phone, your house, all of your appliances, all the transport methods that you use to get to work – all of those become a potential security risk,” says Paterson. “And absolutely – without disconnecting them fundamentally from the internet – they can be hacked.”
There’s also the small matter of the interconnectivity; the way each individual’s digital footprint is aligned with others, and how frighteningly unaware many of us are of this. Almost every online interaction one has is recorded digitally in some way and as we use new technologies such as social media and cloud storage and mobile devices – even though we get a lot of benefit from it – unconsciously we’re leaving a trail of data behind us on the Internet. And that data can be sold, swapped between corporations or, as we have seen from the Edward Snowden revelations, requisitioned by government agencies. Or it can just be stolen. The annual cost of cyber-crime is said to be around $100bn and it’s on the rise.
Car chases are a little easier when you can hack the traffic lights or even raise bridges to strand your pursuers.
So what does Watch Dogs tell us about protecting ourselves from hackers? Is that even possible anymore, given the game’s rather apocalyptic scenario? Paterson says that protection usually revolves around one’s identity and employment. “For the man in the street, I think it’s good to have a digital footprint and to have a presence online,” he says. “But I think we all really need to be conscious that once we’ve posted something it’s there for good – it will never disappear completely.”
Due to the number of unprotected digital footprints in play – from Twitter updates to those photos you put on Facebook the other day – there is a wealth of information available to unscruplous individuals; it just needs to be connected – and the phrase “Connection is power” just happens to be the first tagline used to tease Watch Dogs. Earlier this year, the developer launched a promotional website for the game, We Are Data, which showed how it was possible to build 3D maps from information on public utilities, social networks and other readily available data. In light of the fact it was launched around the same time the Guardian published Edward Snowden’s leaks about the US National Security Agency’s PRISM data-mining program, We Are Data took on an almost Orwellian tone.
From exaggeration to reality
In fact, in recent months, Watch Dogs has begun to look positively prescient. In light of the revelations from the PRISM scandal, which has essentially put paid to the notion that online privacy is a possibility, awareness concerning one’s digital footprint has become more vital than ever before. Hacking is now a highly commoditised business, with everything from day-one-exploits to crimeware tools up for sale in an ever-growing market.
To hear Paterson tell it, while the skills of Aiden Pearce are, at present, more of a game mechanic than a reflection of reality, it behooves the game’s audience to sit up and take notice. “I think [Watch Dogs] is more of an interesting thought-experiment as to what could happen and, obviously, it’s set up as entertainment,” he says. “But there’s a very real premise behind and I think there’s a very positive aspect to it that it could raise the awareness of this in the mind of the public.”
Morin says that while that’s not something Ubisoft wants to ram down the throat of its audience, it certainly wants Watch Dogs to prompt a discussion. “At the very least, you want people talking about their online behavior,” he says. “The game exploits one fundamental aspect of what I think we all have – curiosity.”
“What is that person across the road talking about on their phone? Who is that person texting? What’s going on behind that door across the road? If you get sucked into that aspect of the game, it’ll tell you something about yourself in how you react to what you see.”
Unlike most other games where your engagement in the world is direct – someone hits you, you hit back – Watch Dogs offers players a more passive way of invading the lives of others. It’s a power trip, but one that multitudes of people engage in every day. However the game works when it’s released, it should encourage players to take stock and cogitate on the reality they’ve glimpsed. Because the world of Watch Dogs may not be some wild vision of the distant future. It isn’t science fiction or cyberpunk. It’s the reality we inhabit right now, just viewed through a very purposeful lens. So look around.
• Watch Dogs is released on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox One and Xbox 360 on 27 May. A Wii U version is set to follow in the autumn.