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Science Check – Watch Dogs June 16, 2014

Posted by Maniac in Editorials, Science Check.
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Last month, UbiSoft released a game which took the concept of an open world sandbox video game and completely turned it on its head by giving players the ability not only to explore their environment, but control it. That’s the concept behind UbiSoft’s latest multiplatform title, Watch_Dogs.

What is Watch_Dogs? Allow me to introduce it to you the same way it was introduced to me, UbiSoft’s E3 2012 Press Conference.

Sometimes, you’re forced to make some severe leaps of logic as to just how plausible a video game’s grounded reality can be. Some things we’re willing to take for granted, like enemies will simply just carry health and ammunition supplies with them at all times, and you will be immediately able to make use of them.

But then sometimes there will be moments in gaming which skirt the bounds of reality and you are forced to ask yourself…COULD THAT REALLY HAPPEN? Fortunately for me, I happen to have a bunch of friends on speed dial with science backgrounds and when I ask them questions, they have no problem filling me in on just what reality would do in these situations.

So this is Science Check, where I take a look at the leaps and bounds of scientific logic that games have made over the years and check if it would indeed work, or if you tried doing it in the real world, you’d be totally screwed.

It’s all very plausible for a service like CtOS to be installed. Complete integration to improve automation is a huge part of the growth of new tech companies right now. Smart grids, smart streets, smart buildings, and more are all being discussed right now and its quite a fascinating subject.

On face value, you would think being able to interface with this system (if it is implemented) and control it wirelessly via a cell phone is pretty implausible, but there are workarounds. In the game, the player needs to physically access the CtOS control system directly in several points through Chicago in order to install a backdoor Trojan to compromise each area and bring it under control of the player. Once that happens, a player’s abilities in each zone increase and they have full access to not only the CtOS but every mobile device connected to it. In reality, once you have a computer virus installed on a system, controlling the infected system via a mobile device is entirely possible!

Once you have control of the CtOS, there is plenty that the player can do with it.  All of Chicago’s traffic control systems are managed by the CtOS, so the player can in effect control things like the traffic lights, deploy hidden spike strips, and raise traffic barricades.  The game never outright says what the hardware limitations are of these features, so I really will only be able to talk about them briefly.  The city’s traffic control system can be accessed and subverted even in areas that the player hasn’t physically compromised, so it is likely that traffic control in Chicago is a low security subroutine.  Typically the player can only alter these systems when they come within range, but it’s unclear if that is a physical limitation of the player’s abilities or simply a convenience that the game’s developers gave you.  In theory this could work in one of two ways.  The first possibility is that the CtOS’s traffic control system was completely compromised by the player at the start of the game, and this would allow the player complete control over every street light, barricade and spike strip in Chicago from anywhere in range of the CtOS, but for convenience to the player, the game will only give you the option to control systems in your immediate range.  The other option is Chicago’s traffic control system runs independent of the CtOS but the player’s phone has a subroutine programmed into it that can control the traffic systems wirelessly once they come within range of the phone.  This is probably the more likely scenario, although it requires a bit more of a leap of faith to accept, given the fact that traffic control systems are traditionally hard programmed with their timing instructions when they are first installed, and require a direct line connection to be altered or manually overwritten by any authority figures.  These control systems are typically locked up pretty tightly and can only be accessed by emergency personnel.  As far as I know, they can’t be wirelessly accessed, although I could imagine that police would want to be able to control traffic systems within a certain range of them, so they wouldn’t need to continue going back and forth between the control box and the road when directing traffic.  Of course, you know once you give someone an opening to control something that they shouldn’t, someone nefarious will take advantage of it as the player will in the game.

So how do you get around Chicago? The player has the ability to commandeer any car in the city. At first you’ll be breaking into these cars the hard way.  Early in the game, when you select a car you want to steal, the player will smash the car’s window, unlock the door and quickly hot wire it.  This will typically cause a pretty good ruckus and possibly set off the car’s alarm, but it is a pretty plausible way for a thief to get into a car.  Anyone who plays Grand Theft Auto would assume all the car doors in the world are just simply left unlocked, but that’s not the way the world actually works.  As you progress through the game, it does get a lot more convenient to get into cars.  Once you get the ability to add skill points, you can upgrade your cell phone to hack any car’s security system and grant you control of the car as if it’s yours.  No need to smash windows, subvert alarms, or hot wire anything.  Just take the car as if its always been yours.

The security on today’s cars are so convenient, a car’s owner can enter and operate their vehicle entirely without the need of a physical key. Typically an owner can keep some kind of physical device on them, usually an encrypted key fob, which will create a short range Personal Area Network (PAN). However, you don’t always need to have a key fob. Your SmartPhone has the capability of transmitting a PAN that your car can accept as well. In fact, one of the first things car manufacturers did once devices like the iPhone became commonly adopted was create an app for phones that could control the security features of their newest cars. I remembered seeing James Bond control his car like this when the movie Tomorrow Never Dies came out in theaters and thinking it was the coolest thing I had ever seen, but it was probably never going to be something normal people would be able to do in my lifetime. I was wrong. With what our SmartPhones can do today, James Bond never had it so good.

The problem is what happens if you try to get control of a car that predates an electronic security system? Electronic systems, while very common in new cars, haven’t been around for very long. There are plenty of cars still on the road that can only be entered by a physical key, and no amount of electronic hacking can grant you wireless access to it.  Either Chicago reclaimed all the old cars running in the city and either gave its inhabitants brand new ones or upgraded current cars with modern systems themselves as a way to bribe voters to approve CtOS being implemented, or Chicago mandated that everyone needed to upgrade their cars with modern computer security systems on their own dime.  I highly doubt either of these events could have happened as the former would have been very expensive, and the citizens of Chicago would have likely been completely against a law mandating the latter, and that would have turned public opinion against CtOS.  I think I prefer Grand Theft Auto’s world where all the cars are simply left unlocked.

Another feature you have is the ability to eavesdrop on any video camera within range of you and view what the camera is transmitting.  You could witness anything from a man confessing love to a girl who doesn’t feel the same way about him to Aisha Tyler talking to one of her girlfriends on the phone.  This may sound like a trivial ability but in reality it is very important to gameplay.  In the game, you can gain access to areas that are locked off by taking control of local security cameras. Once you have control of a camera, you can move your control from that camera to any other cameras or computer systems within a line of sight of that camera. This works out pretty well because it helps you gain access to new areas which may hold important information without needing to even be in the room.  It can also lower risk to the player by allowing them to intrude on heavily guarded areas where they would be shot on sight without provoking a firefight.

So how realistic is this?  You would think once you’re able to gain access to a closed network you would be able to take control of any camera connected to the system.  However, a lot of the time, security cameras are part of a completely closed system and don’t allow outside wireless access.  However, if we are to assume that the player’s control over a system relies strictly on line of sight, there is another option and that is infrared.  That’s right, the same kind of technology you would find in a TV remote, it can also be used for a wide range of other purposes including data transmission.  Anyone remember the old Palm Pilot?  Before they were equipped with modems, two Palm users could swap data by simply using the infrared ports on the device.  Most laptops in the 90s came equipped with them too, but they weren’t as convenient as they were for personal digital devices.  Infrared isn’t the world’s fastest way of transmission, but since it relies completely on line of sight to transmit data, anything typically transmitted by infrared isn’t encrypted because it doesn’t need to be.  Security cameras would not be able to transmit user control from point to point unless they were equipped with both an infrared receiver and transmitter, but since the cameras do seem to be able to identify citizens (with the exception of the player) so easily, it is highly likely that the city’s security cameras could be using infrared.  Technology that is currently available, specifically the Xbox One’s Kinect, has a powerful infrared transmitter and receiver and is able to identify players using a very similar process.  In theory the player could gain control of security cameras remotely just by using the cameras’ infrared transmitters against them, so long as he was in range of them and already compromised the system they were connected to.

Once you have control of the CtOS in each area, you can briefly read the profiles of everyone in the game that you pass by.  The information you get typically ranges from their profession, yearly income, and any important information the CtOS deemed pertinent or nefarious, no matter how trivial.  The sickest thing is, it is reasonable to assume a security state would keep detailed records on all its citizens.  There’s a line in the game early on that one of the selling points of CtOS when Chicago was trying to get it installed was that they would offer free wireless internet access to everyone in the city.  I don’t know if the founders told everyone the reason they were willing to offer free wireless internet service is because they wanted everyone to connect to the system so they could monitor all of their citizens’ electronic communications without the need of a warrant.  Since everyone in modern day will typically keep some kind of personal electronic device on them at any time, everyone in the game also has their own personal electronic device, and all these devices are connected to the CtOS.  Since the player has the CtOS compromised, in theory the player would be able to intercept any kind of communication the people around them was currently transmitting, and abilities like being able to listen into active phone calls or read instant messages are trivially easy to do.  Extra abilities like being able to copy data on their phone, like their car’s security key, music, or transfer bank account information is a little tougher to do remotely, but there is precedence for it.  I remember back in 2007 it was fairly common for teenagers to share ringtones with friends using their cell phone’s Bluetooth modem, and it is reasonable to assume that the player’s phone could transmit some kind of local signal to covertly copy data on another person’s digital device.  Also, due to the extreme convenience, people do perform bank transactions on their personal electronic devices.  It is very easy to look up your bank balance, recent transactions, and transfer money from your SmartPhone or Tablet, and while total control of your bank account isn’t possible on your cell phone, it does leave a backdoor for someone who intends to compromise your phone the ability to take money out of your account.   Fortunately, a transaction like this would be very easy for a bank to record and refund in the real world, but if the person took precautions, it would be very difficult for the bank to catch the person responsible for it.  Call me paranoid, but to this day I actually keep my phone’s Bluetooth hardware completely disabled.

After all this, I must say the premise for their game is surprisingly well rooted in plausibility. Thankfully, street-level hackers having the resources to pull off that complex of a job, the complete subversion of an entire city’s security network,  is much less likely. You’re basically talking about needing the resources and backing of a world power to be able to implement those attacks in a meaningful way. And let’s face it, giving yourself green lights isn’t worth that kind of investment.

So there you have it, Watch_Dogs has been officially Science Checked. Special thanks to K.M. for their assistance writing this.  Enjoy the game guys, but never forget the moral I believe these game developers are trying to convey with this game.  NEVER implement a system like CtOS.

Watch_Dogs is out now on multiple platforms.