Hack the World with the Touch of a Button: A Critique of Watch Dogs

Image from thedrum.com
Image from thedrum.com

Have you ever wanted to change the traffic lights from red to green whenever you reached an intersection? Do you ever feel low on cash and want to magically take money from an ATM? Fear not, for there’s a game for you!

Watch Dogs, developed by Ubisoft, is a video game based around a skilled hacker named Aiden Pearce who must save his family from unknown assailants after a bank heist goes wrong. The player follows Aiden as he works around various obstacles using his technological assets. With the help of his smartphone, he is able to access the ctOS (Central Operation System), a server that connects to everything electronic including cellphones and security cameras. As the player progresses, they are able to control more of the ctOS and commit outrageously impossible tasks.

Aiden gets tailed by police and armed hitmen countless times throughout the game, and he must escape using any means necessary. During high speed chases, Aiden is able to use his smartphone to change the traffic lights from red to green, allowing him to drive through the intersection without having to stop.

It would seem difficult to be able to switch traffic lights on demand, but it’s a common and cool hacking-specific skill shown in many films. In The Italian Job, Lyle is a computer genius and the self-proclaimed developer of Napster. He takes the reins during the climax of the movie, skillfully directing an armoured car carrying loads of gold through a detour that he sets up using only his computer and his access to the city’s traffic control system. Even when the control system’s managers  find out, they’re unable to do anything as Lyle has completely taken over the system. He even taunts the control team by showing “You’ll never shut down the real Napster” across the team’s computer screens.

But is it truly possible to control the streets with only a smartphone? Yes, it is.

On April 30, 2014, Cesar Cerrudo, a security researcher, used IOActive  and spent less than $100 to make a machine that can hack the sensors in the road and control traffic lights. He tested the machine in various cities, including Manhattan and London, and completely stopped traffic as he stood in the centre of the intersection like a god. The system he hacked is used around the world. He claims that his machine can intercept more than city lights, and could pose a serious threat to the security of the world.

Aiden is also able to listen to people’s phone conversations on the fly, without actively hacking into their phones. It makes sense in the game world—as the phone is already inside the ctOS and all phones are connected the ctOS, technically his phone should be able to connect to all phones instantly.

Though not as high-tech, hacking phones is already a reality. The common “spies implanting a bug” scene is shown in various shows.  In 21 Jump Street, Jenko, an undercover cop, enlists the help of his nerdy friends to place a chip inside the antagonist Eric’s phone. In a matter of minutes, the kids program the bug to relay all information in the phone to their computer and Jenko is able to return Eric’s phone without him knowing that it was even gone. Later in the movie, they use the chip to listen in on Eric’s conversations through the phone’s microphone without alerting anyone.

In the real world, we’re able to take it further. In 2011, Ralf-Philipp Weinmann, another security researcher, discovered a way to hack into the baseband of smartphones, the portion of the phone that sends and receives radio signals. In other words, he can hack into your phone without even placing any physical equipment into it. This wireless method consists of sending firmware into the phone and gives him access to everything, including your mobile conversations.

The future of Watch Dogs doesn’t seem so far away from the reality of today. We’ve already experienced some of the terrifying abilities of hackers around the world. In 1999, Jonathan James, who was 16 at the time, was able to hack into NASA and the Pentagon, downloading over a million dollars’ worth of software and confidential information. He went on to comment that the security system was not worth the amount of money spent on it.

In a more recent case on November 24, 2014, Sony Pictures Entertainment was hacked and confidential information was released by a group of hackers called the Guardians of Peace. They were able to retrieve information on the employees and their family members, e-mails, and even copies of unreleased films. None of the hackers have been identified and all are still active, showing just how powerful the world of hackers really is. In due time, with the growth of technology and the adaptation of humans, we may soon live in a world where our every move is being watched and we cower at the might of people like Aiden Pearce.

 -contributed by Elizabeth Lau


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