In Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs, a man out for vengeance chooses an odd weapon – a smartphone. Loaded with deadly apps, he blows up power stations, wrecks cars and stops trains. But how close to reality is it?
When Hollywood shows scenes of computer hacking, anyone intelligent enough to work a PC usually stifles a giggle as daft images such as pop-ups saying “Uploading virus 97% complete” appear on screen.
Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs, though, is a vision of the power at the fingertips of today’s hackers – and it’s a lot more realistic, albeit speeded up a touch to ensure gamers don’t switch off.
Created partially in response to Chicago’s network of 10,000 government security cameras, in Watch Dogs you play a vigilante, seeking vengeance in both real and virtual worlds – and using an app to look through cameras as your ‘eyes’. But on Watch Dogs’ journey of vengeance you’ll hack everything and everyone in your way.
The game’s motto is “Everything is connected, connection is power”
Unveiled as one of the earliest games for next-gen consoles such as PS4, Watch Dogs rapidly became one of the most anticipated titles out there.
Editor of game site Kotaku UK Keza MacDonald says, “I love being able to just look at people on the street and see their bank balance and criminal record. Even if it does terrify me slightly, as I expect the NSA can do the same.”
“Controlling a city with a phone is pretty far-fetched, but the idea of someone breaking into the systems that control modern cities and communication feels plausible. It’s done in a game-like way, sure, but the premise is great.
“Games have had hacking elements for a long time, but plugging into a whole city really does feel new – it’s an exhilarating feeling of control. Raising bollards in the middle of the road with the touch of a button, causing ridiculous car crashes. What are you DOING there?”
MacDonald believes the idea of a city-wide network will come true – but in “the medium-term future. It’s still pretty far away”
The developers admit that Watch Dogs’ main protagonist Aidan’s apps and hacks are tweaked to keep up the pace, but according to lifelong gamer and We Live Security reporter Rob Waugh, most of Aidan’s tricks aren’t science fiction. They’re very, very close to reality.
1) Hacking a city, suburb by suburb
“Basically, CTOS Control Rooms are spread through the city and Aiden must gain control of them individually to have full access to his hacking abilities. Aiden’s hacking capabilities are directly linked to his ability to exploit the CTOS infrastructure. He must install a RootKit in the CTOS Control Room to have access to the system in every district,” says Dominic Guay, Senior Producer.
Realism rating: Medium. We Live Security’s Waugh says, “Aiden – a man whose family has been killed – can be played either as a hero or a villain, but among his key weapons are data breaches. As any eBay, Target, or Neiman Marcus customer will tell you, these are very real – now. But a real breach takes months, or careful planning – for instance, Target’s fall began with an email to one of its air-con contractors. Aidan presses the EXECUTE button to set his off. Aidan’s targeting of CTOS controllers to control traffic lights and gates would provoke immediate panic – and security upgrades in the real world. The IT teams and digital forensics in Watch Dogs are a little easier to fool.”
2) Detecting rich people as they walk past you
“Aiden can easily scout his surroundings to gather information and spot enemies before he decides his course of action. It is as useful for stealth players as for action players because the enemies are tagged and now monitored so Aiden can follow their every movement,” says Jonathan Morin, Creative Director.
“Upgrades to Aiden’s smartphone allow him to detect rich citizens as they walk past, so he can see, in his “virtual” view, which characters have useful items like system keys, or just really, really good cars.
Realism rating: Medium. Waugh says, “There’s no app which can pull information together from so many places so quickly. But worries about this are why people are uneasy around devices such as Google Glass. Apart from the rudeness of people taking pictures of you, people fear apps might ‘stitch’ together data, and finding out their home address, job, and other private information – which is why some bloggers have reported being punched merely for wearing them.”
3) Taking over security cameras – and making them ‘yours’
“In most games, security cameras are a threat. In Watch Dogs, they are the player’s tools. Because Aiden has direct access to CTOS, he can use most cameras freely without any threat of being spotted. He is simply erasing the recorded data as fast as it is being captured by the CTOS surveillance system,” says Lead Game Designer Danny Belanger. The game was inspired in part as a protest against Chicago’s authorities installing 10,000 cameras throughout the city.
Realism rating: Low. Waugh says, “The typical Hollywood security guard, looking at a wall of TVs while either sleeping or eating donuts isn’t an accurate representation of how security cameras work these days – although they DO get hacked. There is no single network to hack, no ‘node’ that turns you into God of CCTV as in Watch Dogs. Living in Britain, the most-surveilled country on Earth, there are home cameras, corporate cameras, and several local and government agencies involved. Good luck hacking all of those at once, without leaving a trace.”
4) Blowing up power stations and stopping trains
“First, you will have real-time control over the city’s infrastructure: traffic lights, drawbridges, communications, L-Train and more. Using these will create ripples throughout the city that will impact the people around you and how you reach your goal. The media will talk about your actions affecting your relationship with the Watch Dogs world. It will bring city simulation to an all new level,” says Jonathan Morin, Creative Director. This culminates in the power to explode things with an app.
Realism rating: Medium. Waugh says, “The allegedly state-sponsored attack against Iran’s Busehr plant with the Stuxnet worm has raised awareness of the weakness of some industrial control systems,, and energy companies are reacting, as are transport networks. A phishing expert from trainers PhishMe said in 2013 that all attackers needed was one “lucky” spear-phishing email to “black out” energy companies. But Aiden’s control over everything from steam pipes to entire power stations isn’t quite as plausible. A lone vigilante, attacking from an easily traceable smartphone, would be tracked down quickly and not just by the media.”
5) Augmented reality goes berserk
“You will have access to every mobile device, laptop and computer. Invading everyone’s privacy will organically lead you to all sorts of stories and gameplay experiences. Players are used to following the icons in open world games because they define where the action takes place. In our game, the action will shape itself as you discover it. We like to explore everything linked to connectivity and gaming itself is core to it. Augmented Reality games are becoming increasingly popular and it was a lot of fun for us to play on the paradox of AR games played inside our virtual world,” says Jonathan Morin, Creative Director.
Realism rating: High. Waugh says, “Something as simple as logging into public Wi-Fi can make your data instantly visible, and the US military is looking into ways to make cyber defence into a virtual reality game. Then there’s Google Glass, whose purpose remains unclear. The game-within-a-game in Watch Dogs where you use augmented reality to shoot aliens shows off how close this game and reality come. You can even download an iPad app (pictured) and battle against friends – who suddenly appear in ‘your’ world and call down the cops on you.”