NAG Online > Opinions > Opinion: Watch Dogs is Ubisoft’s look at Big Data

Opinion: Watch Dogs is Ubisoft’s look at Big Data


While Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs goes on to achieve some very interesting sales numbers and garners a lot of interest from retarded politicians in the US-of-A claiming that the game teaches children how to hack into phones, I feel that what’s going in between the lines that the game wants to convey is a message far more important and – indeed for cities who already are moving into a ctOS-like environment connected to the internet – a lesson in how consumers, governments and companies SHOULD view and protect Big Data and the Internet of Things.

What is Big Data?

Big data is a term that internet evangelists and engineers coined to house all of the things that make up Big Data. Its a term for data sets or information streams so large and so complex that finding any meaning in it at all requires completely new methods of analysing, storing and retrieving data that is of relevance to you – the user or corporation or government. Big data is the NSA finding phone call records that take place at the same time as terrorist attacks or known meetings and using triangulation and other records like bus systems, Google searches and bank account withdrawals to find their suspects to within one city block.

Big data is Amazon looking at weather reports for the day and using wind speeds and temperatures to calculate by how much a typhoon causes a container ship (that has your PS4 on it) to change course and arrive safely, so that they can update their shipping dates and analyse how much mother nature is costing them and how much money they could save using alternate routes or different modes of transport in the future. Amazon deserves special mention because they were studying big data and its effects as far back as 2005 and their warehousing systems are so sophisticated that they can auto-order new stock for popular items well before the product managers will know it themselves.

Netflix uses big data in a very different way – by subscribing to torrent trackers around the world and identifying trends in torrent user’s habits in the countries they have a Netflix service in, they can tailor which shows appear on the network for specific regions without having to do costly, time-consuming surveys of consumer habits. They have that all in real-time now and as a bonus its completely free.

Big data is a supermarket using Wi-Fi and Bluet00th-enabled cellphones to not only feed you coupons but to track how long you spend in their stores, which aisles you frequent, what products you buy as well as predict general trends that would require them to plan in advance, for example, that the rising petrol price in three weeks will cause people to buy less bread, so they don’t need to order as much flour for their bakeries.

Big data is SANRAL using their e-Toll systems to generate real-time data on where and how people move around the city and use that data to figure out where roads need to be repaired or respond to accidents within seconds.  Big data is the City of Johannesburg using user-generated reports of discovered potholes along with GPS co-ordinates and photos to identify which roads are under more strain than others.

In every instance of data sets that become too big for a company to handle normally, you can call it “big data.” According to studies conducted by eBay and Statistica, the volume of information gathered inside by, and swapped between, businesses on the internet doubles every year.

The Internet of Things

Big data is an important part of the Internet of Things, because having all the separate industries and companies connected together on the internet is just as important as being able to sift through the data in your own network. When people commonly talk about the Internet of Things they tend to stop at your web connection allowing you to control the devices in your house, or monitor your energy consumption, or pre-program your car’s GPS using a route you’ve selected on your tablet before hopping in for the drive.  That is a network of things you own, but an Internet of Things is quite different.

You want to know why Google sells off your information about what you search, when you search it and using what terms to the highest bidder? Because it was the first internet-connected big data resource that allowed advertisers to get more exposure through tailored adverts. Doing this through the use of Youtube, Google Search, Gmail and Google News was the first example of an Internet of Things, even though they’re all under Google’s brand anyway. Before then, this was fairly difficult and it couldn’t give advertisers the flexibility they needed.

The Internet of Things typically brings together the following nine markets: Buildings/Property, Energy, Consumer and Home, Healthcare, Industry, Transportation, Retail/Commerce, Safety and Security and IT and Networks. Without the IT and Networks branch, nothing else would be able to communicate across different sectors or influence others. This is why home automation and driverless cars have such massive market potential – usage of those two devices/services affects the energy, consumer, buildings and transportation sectors with just two Things. If you pay for your groceries using SnapScan, you’re affecting the retail and finance sector (not pictured above) at the same time.

ctOS is an Internet of Things and people

Let’s draw straight from the Watch Dogs wiki here – “Produced by the Blume Corporation, ctOS controls the electrical infrastructure in Chicago. The ctOS also stores information on each inhabitant of the city in Control centres and gathers new information with the help of surveillance. Various control centers (data servers) are dotted around Chicago, which can be taken control of, along with CTOS towers, allowing the controller to access the information it stores and the mechanisms it controls.”

“Various communication sites are placed between the centers, allowing for quick transfer of data over large distances. Though ctOS has prevented and is still preventing the overall crime levels of Chicago, that doesn’t mean that the city is as protected as the Blume Corporation says it is.”

To a large extent, the scenario that players are fed in Watch Dogs is a “what-if” universe where a city rolls out a big data network, uses it to create an internet of things and then sees it hacked by someone who knows how to get into the system to do whatever they want without being traced (if you don’t think that’s possible, I’d like to introduce you to Heartbleed). Aiden can walk around the corner of a house, hack into the home’s Wi-Fi network that’s set up on a router provided by the city to gain access to a mobile phone and, eventually, bank accounts or credit card information stored on the device (oh hey, have you heard of Snapscan?)

Watch Dogs is far more grounded in reality than other games Ubisoft has made in the past because this scenario is real – it was previously posited by Barnaby Jack, the famous hacker who made ATM machines spit out bank notes as if they were soap bubbles in your mouth.

Barnaby, unfortunately, died a week before his presentation on how to hack into pacemakers with RFID emitters used for remote programming. He was to present how the scenario in the TV series Homeland, where the vice president of the United States is assassinated through terrorists using his pacemaker to initiate a heart attack, could be done with a laptop just a few metres away from the target. Although dead, his work went on to spur Scott Erven to delve into the security flaws inside hospital equipment.

The reality is that Aiden has far more power than he lets on


Its probably a good thing that Ubisoft doesn’t delve into Aiden’s hacking abilities too deeply. Given how ctOS operates, it would be far too easy for Aiden to create a distraction by giving a guy a heart attack on the street while he enters into a building or assassinates a target. Or to have the villians hold a hospital hostage by shutting off their oxygen supply and postponing all operations. Or to hold the city hostage by stopping all trains, creating massive traffic jams and blocking cellular communication so that actions, objects or crimes that would ordinarily draw attention to you suddenly don’t seem so important to anyone else in the ensuing chaos all around them.

Think about it. If you could have control over an entire city for one day with Aiden’s cellphone, what would you do with that power? Everyone answers this question differently.

I have yet to play Watch Dogs and when I do, I intend to spend much of my time once finished with the game to see how far the ctOS hacking extends. I’d like to see how far Ubisoft’s developers were allowed to go before they were told that what they were doing was too sensitive because Watch Dogs is a perfect tool to teach people that nothing that is either:

A) Connected to the internet;

B) Stored on the internet;

C) Stored on an internet-connected device

… will ever be 100% secure. By that same token, nothing that is already on the internet will ever be truly forgotten or erased, because there’s always some dark corner of the digital world that still has your data intact if its of any use to anyone (and if it is, the NSAalready knows about it). As big data becomes more and more valuable to governments and corporations, data security needs to be a bigger issue for people if they intend to retain or reclaim some of their anonymity. The ctOS network in Watch Dogs is a good example because anything that is connected to ctOS is something that Aiden can hack, steal or otherwise gain access to.

That’s just like the real world, sadly. If you don’t want anything to be found on or accessed through the internet, don’t put it on the internet.

  • Johannes Conradie

    Great article!

  • Matthew Vice

    Very interesting.

    Although there are points where the whole internet of people and things and stuff started to sound almost theological.

    Anyway, as a training tool for potential hackers, Watchdogs is bull$%&! It tried pointing my smarthphone at the traffic lights as I was driving home to make them green so I could keep going. All I managed was a fender bender and a nine-car pileup.

    I guess I have to sue Ubisoft now.

    • Rick de Klerk

      I don’t know, that accident sounds exactly like the hacking in Watch Dogs to me.

      But seriously, I think the level of information we’re sharing online, willingly or otherwise, IS reaching a point where data mining and its analysis approaches an almost theological level of potential maleficence and omniscience.

      One of the most interesting articles I’ve read on the potential of data mining and metadata was a post by Kieran Healy on using metadata to find Paul Revere:

      Also, good article, Wesley! While I’m not a fan of Ubisoft’s open-world offerings, I think Watch Dogs sounds like one of the smarter versions of it to come out in recent memory, and it touches on a lot of sensitive points without necessarily addressing them directly.

      • Matthew Vice

        Well, yeah, except I wasn’t supposed to be under the other 8 cars.

  • BinaryMind

    Very good article.

    I store some special stuff in Dropbox but I store it in a Truecrypt file with triple-layer encryption. Would take a few million/billion years to crack that :D

    • Rick de Klerk

      You might be interested in the Truecrypt audit going on:

      I’d love to use something like Dropbox, but I just see it as another point of ingress into my life, and I’m trying to minimise the amount of services I use that also require deep access to my personal information.

      • BinaryMind

        Wow. That is interesting. I assumed that because it’s open source, people would find if there were any errors but it’s probably too huge to check quickly.

        I use Dropbox as a backup for a PC game I’m developing (been working on it for 5 years). Just so that if my entire house burned down, I’d still have the source code.

        • Wesley Fick

          Remember, Dropbox’s terms don’t cover you if an employee decides to steal your source code and pass it off as his/her own.

          • BinaryMind

            Which is why it is encrypted in a Truecrypt file ;)

      • Wesley Fick

        I’ve been following the audit saga as well and things are checking out – the only reason why the devs have stopped making Truecrypt better is because governments were looking too closely at it and they wanted nothing to do with the sinister uses that people were coming up with.

        • Rick de Klerk

          Sinister uses? Like what?

          • Wesley Fick

            Child porn trafficking. One of the best features of Truecrypt is that you can encrypt separate parts of a folder that has other folders in it and have passwords for each folder inside that. But unless the protection can be cracked, there’s no way of knowing how many folders are in there. If authorities ask for passwords, you can give them passwords to every other folder in the group that you won’t mind them accessing, but unless they know the name of a specific folder in the file set there’s no way they can get you to reveal everything. Especially if you just say that you’ve long forgotten it.

            Its also what Snowden uses for transporting information to his contacts in the media. The NSA naturally would love to insert a backdoor that allows them to revert the encryption on the files and see their original contents.

          • Rick de Klerk

            Well, I can imagine that it’s used for illegal and immoral activities just as much as for legitimate purposes, like BinaryMind’s example. That’s the problem with technology; it’s amoral, but people aren’t.

            I was aware that you can stick a hidden encrypted volume hidden inside another, and it basically appears as empty space. Are those the folders you’re talking about?

          • Wesley Fick

            We probably are talking about the same thing. I haven’t used Truecrypt in ages because I have nothing except my financial records that might need at least a little security. My CPU doesn’t have hardware-accelerated decryption either, so things are a little slower than I’d like.

          • Rick de Klerk

            I know that the common occurrence when discussing anything vaguely technology related is to reference a XKCD-comic, but I always think of this whenever encryption’s discussed.

          • Squirly

            We really are the weakest link in any equation. Short of dying there’s not much else we can do at that point and that’s not really a solution.


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