With the swipe of his finger across a smartphone, a man collects the name, occupation and salary of someone standing next to him at a bus stop. He hacks into the victim’s bank account and steals hundreds of dollars. He listens in on a private conversation and then walks on. The victim is none the wiser.
The fear of being hacked in broad daylight feels ripped from today’s headlines, but this is actually a scenario from Watch Dogs, gaming firm Ubisoft Montreal’s latest potential blockbuster, being released today.
Though the above scene isn’t real life, the storyline may hit uncomfortably close to home given recent news coverage about online security breaches and the ability of hackers to access your personal information.
In Watch Dogs, players portray Aiden Pierce, an expert hacker who can access all parts of CtOS, the central operating system of a fictionalized Chicago. This access enables manipulation of the city’s infrastructure, its security systems as well as the personal information of every citizen who carries a cellphone.
Fantasy becomes reality
The origin of Watch Dogs goes back to 2009 — before Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency leaks hit the mainstream news. At the time, lead game director Jonathan Morin and many of his friends were early adopters of emerging technology. Social media and smartphones were in their infancy compared to their prolific use today.
"We were in the sweet spot where we were looking at what we thought would be the next generation of living in a connected city, at a time when most of my family and friends — most of the people I knew — were not yet into smartphones," he said.
'It turns out our take was even a little bit soft compared to what can be done in real life.' - Jonathan Morin, Watch Dogs lead game director
But even he was surprised by how quickly real-life technology began catching up with his designers’ ideas.
"We brainstormed something we wanted to do in the game and then the next week or next month, there was literally that news on the web. And we were like, 'Jesus.’"
One such idea (which did not make it into the final game) involved hacking into a U.S. prison’s security system, releasing the inmates and inciting a riot. During a demonstration at Def Con, the annual Las Vegas-based hacking conference, Morin learned that without the right security measures in place, a skilled hacker could indeed pull it off.
"It turns out our take was even a little bit soft compared to what can be done in real life," he said, though he wouldn’t detail any specific scenarios that made it into the game to avoid spoilers.
The hype for Watch Dogs has been building for nearly two years. First unveiled at 2012's Electronic Entertainment Expo, gamers have been inundated with preview articles, developer interviews and dozens of trailers showing off the beefy technology behind the project.
As the first title in what’s slated to be an all-new franchise — this isn’t an extension of Ubisoft's existing hits such as Assassin’s Creed or Splinter Cell — there are high expectations and reputations at stake for Watch Dogs, especially since it arrives more than six months later than originally planned.
Initially set to debut last winter, alongside Microsoft’s Xbox One and Sony’s PlayStation 4, the game was touted as a technical showcase for the expanded capabilities of the pricey new consoles.
But in October, Ubisoft announced Watch Dogs would be delayed until this year. It missed the retail bonanzas of Black Friday and Christmas, and left the brand new consoles’ library of games sorely lacking at launch.
What happened? The lead developers said they needed to take more time to “polish” Watch Dogs, including making various tweaks, nips and tucks to the gameplay.
Real life potential?
According to Ubisoft's Morin, nearly everything Watch Dogs' Aiden Pierce can do in the game — from hacking into a pedestrian’s phone to remotely raising a drawbridge — can be achieved in real life. Of course, that doesn’t mean you can do it with one touch of your smartphone, like he does.
"The act of hacking is a lot more extensive work," Morin explained.
"In real life, you would need hours and hours, sometimes days … just to get that access working."
Bending the rules of hacking is in service of the game, since a player likely wouldn’t be as interested in the actual, minute programming work required as much as seeing the effect it causes in the game’s world, he said.
Part of what separates Watch Dogs from reality is the CtOS, which connects every device in the fictionalized city to one operating system. Such a phenomenon is unlikely to appear in the real world any time soon: legacy technologies are often integrated into newer systems, but never in the simplified, top-down way that Watch Dogs presents.
"The reality of our actual world is that there are multiple contracts, companies and technologies. A mono culture would make things easier to run, while increasing the risk of something like Watch Dogs coming into reality," according to Mark Nunnikhoven, vice-president of cloud and emerging technologies at security firm Trend Micro.
That said, the most common target of Watch Dogs’ hacker protagonist is personal smartphones and the device is at the heart of many people’s concerns about cybersecurity.
In the last few years, cybersecurity experts have been warning the general public about just how simple it can be for hackers to access the wealth of personal and financial information held on our phones.
"Could you easily do [things like change traffic lights or raise a drawbridge] with the press of a smartphone button? Probably not. But is it feasible to hack into someone’s smartphone? Absolutely," says Brian Bourne, co-founder of Toronto's annual SecTor cybersecurity conference.
"A high percentage of Android phones do get compromised. It’s shockingly easy."
A positive message?
Could a game like Watch Dogs, then, raise awareness about the potential weaknesses in existing online security and how our personal privacy may be compromised in this constantly connected world? Experts are divided.
Dave Lewis, a global security advocate at content delivery and web security firm Akamai, believes that the prolific depiction of hacking — mostly by stereotyped characters — can send the wrong message, depending on the audience.
In Watch Dogs, for instance, Aiden Pierce is conspicuously dressed in a long trench coat and scarf that covers his face. His hacker partners include a woman with sleeve tattoos, piercings and a Mohawk, while another is a dreadlocked, alcoholic outcast.
"In a lot of other popular media, the term ‘hacker’ has become synonymous with the criminal element," Lewis said.
"All of these roles have their place in the ecosystem, but the reality is that this doesn’t do anything to raise awareness. It does more to glorify it."
It's nothing new, however for fringe characters or communities to be idealized for the sake of entertainment, said Trend Micro’s Nunnikhoven.
"People understand that it is a game and it is taking liberties just like movies do," he said.
"I hope that Watch Dogs can sort of raise the awareness around how much electronic and information technology has infiltrated our daily lives and that, while it's enabled so many wonderful things, we need to be well aware of the limitations of it as well — and that security is a big aspect of it."