How Close is Watch Dogs to Real Life?

By Kotaku on at

By Peter Ray Allison

Shortly before last year’s E3, the Guardian and the Washington Post revealed documents describing the vast data-mining and global internet surveillance of America’s NSA (National Security Agency – once known as ‘No Such Agency’, as its existence was denied for many years), in tandem with many of the USA’s biggest communications companies. These programmes, which went beyond NSA’s remit, were leaked by Edward Snowden, a former contractor with the NSA.

At the previous year’s E3, Ubisoft had revealed Watch Dogs to a stunned crowd - a game thematically built around the weaknesses and dangers of our interconnected world. Watch Dogs might be an urban cyber-fantasy, but it is set in a Chicago that is not too different from the real on. Its Central Operating System (CtOS for short) is a vast interconnected surveillance network that is cast over the city, not entirely unlike the NSA’s surveillance network. Residents can be seen wherever they go by the CtOS, and Aiden Pearce is also able to tap into the city’s security database to learn personal information about civilians, from their age and ethnicity to their bank balance and likely behaviour. If this is not an intentional case of art imitating life, then it’s a pretty big coincidence.

Should we be surprised that Watch Dogs is so political? Network administrator Peter Gatehouse thinks not. He explains that “videogame developers are coders, and like most IT professionals, they will have some exposure to hacker culture; a movement that has been politically aware for a long time now. Open source software is one such example of this awareness, and can be likened to a political statement, given how freedom of information and freedom of access are core principles within the open source community.”

To ensure that hacking is portrayed realistically in Watch Dogs, Ubisoft Montreal consulted the internet security firm Kaspersky about what is (and isn’t) possible within cyber security. (This did not prevent the developer from featuring a mobile phone that can seemingly bypass network security within seconds, though, to enable Aiden to control whatever device he chooses.)

In real life, creating such a broad network as the CtOS, which encompasses all utilities within an urban centre, would be a huge vulnerability in itself: when the network security is breached, the hacker will have access to all of those services within the network. In reality it would be far better to limit access by utilising decentralised networks, with each utility operated independently of the others. Obviously, this wouldn’t work so well in a video game - imagine having to hack into hundreds of different individual networks. Wouldn’t be as fun as pressing a button to make a police car crash into a roadblock.

Technical Specialist Chris Clemson admits that the network connectivity of Aiden’s mobile phone is “pushing the realms of possibility,” commenting that “I don’t think we’ve had compatibility like that since that guy uploaded a virus to the alien spaceship in Independence Day.”

But Watch Dogs does mirror how we are becoming an increasingly digital culture. From smartphones and Bluetooth to digital currency and Near Field Communication (NFC), there is an escalating number of devices with their own IP-address (internet protocol address, a unique identifier used by devices on a network). Like all internet-connected devices, these will all require secure connections, which will require periodic updates to ensure they are not left vulnerable.

Watch Dogs’ developers will have had no shortage of inspiration for plot-lines surrounding breaches in network security. A recent report from earlier this year revealed how a fridge was part of 100,000 strong phishing network that was attempting to gain usernames, passwords and credit card details, due to its built-in processor and network connections.

“For [compromised] devices, the worst that can happen is there can be a key logger or a botnet, but it will not be the end of civilisation,” Chris Clemson pragmatically observes. “When these things are used in utility companies, then it is more of a big deal, such as what happened before with Stuxnet and Flame.” Watch Dogs examines the consequences of what happens when someone possesses the ability to freely access these utility networks.

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Discovered in 2010, Stuxnet is a worm that caused a fifth of nuclear centrifuges within Iran to tear themselves apart. Two years later, the malware known as Flame was found to have harvested vast amounts of sensitive information, primarily from computers within Iran.

The recently discovered BadBIOS malware, which sounds like it came from science-fiction, transmits itself between systems utilising computers’ high-frequency speakers and microphones, and proves that the future of cyber-security will not be limited to Bluetooth and wireless internet connections. Chris Clemson comments that in the future, as networks become more complicated, “there is no reason why things like BadBIOS cannot become possible: with short band communications, like Bluetooth and NFC, we have so many more ways of communicating, so stuff like [Watch Dogs] could happen.”

The increasingly digital nature of our culture means we are becoming more connected, whether we like it or not. “There are so many more threat vectors through so many more devices that we control,” Chris Clemson observes. These new avenues of connectivity will need to be robustly secure, otherwise they will become another weakness that hackers can exploit; when Bluetooth was first released, users were bombarded by spam and malware, as hackers tried to access mobile phones.

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If Watch Dogs has a point to make, it’s that global interconnectivity comes with its own dangers: omnipresent surveillance, the erosion of individual privacy and, above all, vulnerability to those who would exploit the system. Its Chicago might not be real yet, but it’s hardly a million miles away.