How ‘Watchdogs’ gives us a sample of a connected world
The 2014 Ubisoft game ‘Watch Dogs’ was wildly popular, on several levels. From a purely gaming perspective, it had it’s own discussions about the cool ways players could perform hacking in this game. But outside of the game world, it initiated discussions in the public forum about the risks a smart city could bring if it relies on a single centralized operating system. The main fascination around this discussion was that it is similar to what people see as future ‘smart cities’. Even though it seems a long way away, the advancements in areas like AI, IoT etc have made us feel like we’re getting closer to this reality.
For those of you who haven’t played this game, here are some of the incredible things Aiden Pearce(the protagonist/player) can do in Chicago, which is set in a future era of smart cities:
Control Public Infrastructure: Bridges, road blockers, and other civic installations like underground steam pipes are all controlled using ctOS. Through backdoors in the system, Aiden can lift bridges and road blockers at the touch of a button. The same goes for blowing up the steam pipes to disable vehicles of pursuers and cops.
Transfer Funds: ctOS enables everyone to manage their bank accounts seamlessly using their mobile devices. You’re not very lucky if you happen to be next to Aiden on the sidewalk. He can seamlessly transfer those funds into a temporary account from which we can withdraw money using an ATM.
Eavesdropping: The fictitious Blume Corporation who owns ctOS takes the blame for this. By setting up thousands of surveillance cameras across Chicago and turning every cell phone into a microphone, they turned the whole city into a giant webcam. Whoever knew their way around ctOS could get away eavesdropping on literally anyone at anytime of the day.
Grand Theft Auto: What’s easier that using a metal rod to boost a car? Hacking the lock so it opens the door for you, thinking you’re the owner. Aiden can drive almost any car in the city because of this.
- Too much potential power in the hands of one person. If one person could do so much damage simply because so many essential services work on a central system, the risk overweighs the potential ease of doing things. Encryption techniques that would completely isolate such sub-systems within the larger network might be the key to security in smart cities.
- Data analytics and mining coupled with mass surveillance is a recipe for disaster. The game’s story arc shows Chicago’s mayor doing a shady deal with Blume Corporation. It was to get an insider idea about voter’s deepest desires and hopes through analytics and mining applied on data gathered through the mass surveillance network. Due to this, the election happened as if it was rigged. It was a thumping victory for Mayor Rushmore. This is definitely illegal in every sense of the word.
- If ctOS goes, everything goes: Smart cities, being essentially a single network, means that a ctOS blackout(Aiden could momentarily do it for a couple of blocks) meant everything went offline. This is dangerous in times of crisis.
The only good thing about ctOS is that such a system would result in a drop in crime rate. The beefed up surveillance ensured cops had eyes and ears in every corner of the city. This let them prevent crimes from escalating and zero in on criminals trying to escape.
Before we get into giving a verdict on whether a ctOS should ever be implemented, let’s get one thing clear: the technology is years away. Hopefully, by the time we get there, authorities would be aware of the risks such an integrated system poses to residents of a city.
PS – Watch Dogs 2 is coming out this month. This time, the mayhem is happening in San Francisco!
Pravir Ramasundaram is our in-house content writer at ContractIQ. Keep coming back to read more from him on mobility, outsourcing and other things tech.