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Watch Dogs + VICE — User profiled

Big data, privacy and state surveillance: an investigation on the actual scenario and the game’s cyber-dystopian world.

This document describes in brief User Profiled, a promotional initiative that analyzes Watch Dogs 2 (Ubisoft, 2016) considering its communicative function and other primary information elements. The research considers the product and its materials by studying the creative choices, the informative properties, the modalities of visual representation and promotion.

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Valuable asset In the era of big data, information coming from a user’s digital activity is tracked down and stored by profiling the user’s social, geographical, economic, educational and health conditions, which brings up issues on how governments, corporations and criminal groups may access, manage and misuse sensitive information.

1. Short analysis

Introductory note: Watch Dogs 2 (Ubisoft, 2016) is set in 2016 in San Francisco, where the metropolitan computer system ctOS 2.0 has become a corporate instrument of hidden sociopolitical control and repression. Young hacker Marcus Holloway, together with a group of cyber-pirates named DedSec, gets into conflict comes into conflict with the established authority to publicly expose ctOS 2.0.’s dangers, and to regain control of civil liberties.

1.1. User profiled
Published during Watch Dogs 2’s promotional campaign, the documentary entitled User Profiled[1] is made of two episodes, built with the function of introducing the game’s core topics by outlining the risk of big data for mass surveillance and manipulation purposes, and by representing a technosocial scenario based on a dystopian vision of cybersecurity and the control of telecommunications. The promotional initiative establishes a link between current controversial privacy issues that have been investigated by VICE, and the dramatized, hyperconnected world of Watch Dogs 2: this expands the intellectual property’s founding theme and its narrative depictions into realistic material.

Let’s briefly analyze the promotional context of the documentary initiative, that was published between October and November 2016[2].

1. The reign of Big Data — All information generated by a daily user’s online activity can be exploited to classify the population following economic, psychological and ideological criteria, with the risk of misuse in issues such as reputation, judgment and decisions against a person or a specific group of people.

“What happens to this data ? Who can get their hands on it? And what do they do when they get it? How are they using it to target us? […] Every time we log on, we’re giving out information that can be used against us in the future.“ […] What rights do we lose as individuals in the wake of this technologies? — Matt Goerzen

1.2. Control and classification
November 10, 2016
The first episode of User Profiled investigates how digital data is generated through the Net, and how it represents a valuable resource of control in contemporary society: habits, locations, payments, relationships, preferences and the users’ personal orientations are systematically tracked down and analyzed, exposing sensitive information to concrete risk of financial
speculation, political manipulation and social discrimination. Interviews with entrepreneurs, scientists and governmental officials underline a series of emergent problematic scenarios, with clear warnings on the rights of personal freedom, data ownership and predictive surveillance policies.

  • People interviewed:
    0. Matt Goerzen VICE reporter
    1. Dylan Lenz founder and CEO of Naborly
    2. Michel Juneau-Katsuya senior intelligence officer at CSIS
    3. Stephen Wormith director, Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science and Justice Studies (University of Saskatchewan)
    4. Daniel Anvari research officer (dept. of Mathematics, University of Saskatchewan)
    5.
    Ann Cavoukian executive director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute
  • Visited locations:
    1. Toronto (Ontario, Canada), with Dylan Lenz
    2. Ottawa (Ontario, Canada), with Michel Juneau-Katsuya
    3. Saskatoon (Saskatchewan, Canada), with Stephen Wormith
    4. Montreal (Quebec, Canada)
  • Narrative structure and key notions (selection of primary elements):
    1. Big data represents a relevant business sector concerning massive amounts of information (2.5 billion gigabytes generated daily by mobile devices and telecommunication systems)
    2. Data is collected from the users’ digital activity and urban infrastructures (risks of potential large-scale surveillance activity)
    3. Introductory thematic questions (What happens to this data? How is it used to target us?)
    4. Interview with Dylan Lenz (Naborly is an online tenant screening service which utilyses big data to calculate a user’s reputation; Goerzen’s profile analysis is shown in demonstration)
    5. Interview with Michel Juneau-Katsuya (personal information available online may lead to classification and manipulation phenomena, influencing a person’s behaviour)
    6. Predictive policing (in the U.S., private companies offer big data analyses to local police forces to prevent criminal activity)
    7. In 2015, the Saskatoon police department began to work on a new predictive policing program (in collaboration with the Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science and Justice Studies)
    8. Interview with Stephen Wormith (on how predictive policing may act as a decision-making aid against crime)
    9. Interview with Daniel Anvari (on how algorithms may enforce the police officers’ action by calculating the risk of recidivism of a specific individual analysing his criminal record)
    10. Interview with Ann Cavoukian (big data may be discriminatory because of the bias detected in algorithms. This lack of accuracy poses a risk to civil liberties)
    11. Interview with Stephen Wormith
    12. Interview with Daniel Anvari
    13. Conclusions (personal data is a valuable resource for law enforcement, governments and corporations as it could potentially be misused to profile and classify individuals and predict their behaviour. But some users are already finding ways to regain control of their privacy)
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Dylan Lenz (Naborly), Michel Juneau-Katsuya (CSIS), Stephen Wormith (University of Saskatchewan), Ann Cavoukian (Privacy and Big Data Institute) explain the following: 1) big data is used to evaluate a tenant’s financial requirements; 2) big data may be discriminatory, due to inaccurate algorithms; 3) in some cases, personal information is used to psychologically manipulate an individual influencing his judgment; 4) predictive policing programs have been implemented, using big data as a decision-making aid for law enforcement.

“We look at around 500 different data points. We do a phone records search, we do email identity verification. We look at social media information. […] Less ethical people might actually start using that data to make decisions or to classify you”—Dylan Lenz

“There’s information about your health profile, your academic profile, maybe about your spending profile, and even your political orientation, about your friends. […] In the hands of somebody who knows how to psychologically manipulate a person, […] that can be extremely powerful” — Michel Juneau-Katsuya

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At the Saskatoon Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science and Justice Studies, Stephen Wormith and Daniel Anvari have developed a software able to predict the index of criminal recidivism of a specific individual, analyzing his criminal record and comparing it with similar cases, with the objective of optimizing the police officers’ action by setting up better decision-making processes.

“We want to apply this capacity, this technology, to the potential array of issues that are presented to police. Do you arrest someone, do you let them go, do you charge them, do you detain them? It’s an example of how this kind of approach can basically act as decision making aid.” — Stephen Wormith

“We are supposed to help officers to make a better decision by just giving them better hands on the data. […] It would show you what is the risk of recidivism for this specific individual, for this specific time index.“ — Daniel Anvari

“Big data, it can lead to surveillance on such an unimaginable scale […] They talk about the tyranny of algorithms. What they’ve learned is that big data can be discriminatory. Bias can be reflected in the algorithms that will lead to unfortunate results for certain socio-economic groups.” — Ann Cavoukian

2. Personal cybersecurity — VICE continues investigating privacy issues through a social experiment, built to verify the users’ level of awareness with regard to the terms of service policies when joining a social network: the experiment demonstrates how easily the users have their data exposed, even without knowing how this may radically affect their lives. To contrast unauthorized data harvesting practices, the international hacktivist community raises its protest against state surveillance and control policies, building data-protected tools and committing cyber-attacks to maintain the Internet a free platform of personal and collective expression.

“In today’s world your data can be used to manipulate you in terrifying new ways.” — Matt Goerzen

“Edward Snowden really revealed for the first time the massive amount of government surveillance taking place all around the world.” — Ann Cavoukian

1.3. Awareness and activism
November 10, 2016
The cultural norm of accepting a product’s service terms without caring about the property and diffusion of your personal data demonstrates the lack of awareness about the misuse of information deriving from the spread of digital technologies. In addition, many common computer tools gain access to sensitive information extremely easily, increasing the risk of discriminatory phenomena coming from institutional organizations against criminal subjects. In this controversial scenario, the hacktivist community continues contrasting state surveillance policies by exposing governmental infringements and creating softwares specifically designed to protect the users’ data from exploitation and, if necessary, by carrying out cyber-attacks against institutional infrastructures, if found guilty of violating the citizens’ civil rights.

  • People interviewed:
    0. Matt Goerzen VICE reporter
    1. Jonathan Obar assistant professor, York University
    2. Eric Parent cyber-security expert (the research tool used is Carrot2)
    3. Ann Cavoukian executive director of the Privacy and Big Data Institute
    4. David Mirza Ahmad former black-hat hacker, founder of Subgraph
    5. Raymond Johansen anonymous hacktivist
  • Visited locations:
    1. Toronto (Ontario, Canada), with Jonathan Obar, Ann Cavoukian
    2. Montreal (Quebec, Canada) with Erik Parent, David Mirza Ahmad, Raymond Johansen
  • Narrative structure and key elements (selection of primary elements):
    1. Digital technology has made it easier to track down our personal information (preferences, locations, relationships, political orientation).
    2. Reference to Edward Snowden’s leak about NSA’s misuse of the state surveillance program (2013).
    3. Interview with professor Jonathan Obar (his fake website NameDrop
    demonstrated how users completely ignore privacy and service policy terms, exposing their information to extreme consequences; the survey underlined the lack of awareness about privacy and the protection of one’s personal reputation).
    4. Interview with Eric Parent (example of a brief search utilizing publicly available tools, to visualie data and a subject’s online history).
    5. Interview with Ann Cavoukian (example of an investigation case concerning 12 mobile phone health and fitness apps, from which the information collected on the user flowed to 76 unauthorized parties).
    6. Reference to how Edward Snowden’s revelations have made users more concerned and aware about privacy, but without knowing how to exactly protect it.
    7. Interview with David Mirza Ahmad (brief presentation of Subgraph, an operating system developed to preserve the users’ privacy and to promote free Internet).
    8. Reference to Canada’s anti-terror legislation about surveillance laws (Bill C-51, approved in 2015)
    9. Reference to targeted operations carried out by Anonymous against the Canadian political and security establishment (hacking of the Canadian Prime Minister’s website and the Canadian secret services).
    10. Interview with Raymond Johansen about how a hacktivist operation is run and why it is important to defend privacy as a human right.
    11. Conclusions (as information has become a valuable asset for governments and corporations to evaluate how to influence an individual’s life, privacy is at risk as never before, with concerns about uncertain ethical and legal limitations on big data).
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Jonathan Obar (York University) and Eric Parent (cyber-security expert) warn us about the hidden clauses included in the terms of service agreements, and point out how easy it is to obtain sensitive information about an individual using publicly available tools, with serious dangers for one’s privacy and digital reputation.

“It would take users at least 40 minutes a day to read all the policies that you would need to read to provide informed consent to all the services and all the apps that we engage with alle the time online, and that’s just not realistic.”—Jonathan Obar

“These corporations has alla your data. They know exactly what you’ve searched for, and from a privacy perspective, it’s a huge problem.” — Eric Parent

“The Federal Trade commission studied 12 health and fitness app, and they found that the information was flowing to 76 different third parties, unathorized. 76! That’s just one example.“ — Ann Cavoukian

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Black-hat hacker David Mirza Ahmad (founder of Subgraph) and Raymond Johansen explain how open source computer systems with built-in data-protection tools are an emerging business, and why the hacktivist community continues standing up against the establishment by committing serious cyber-attacks.

“There’s a spectrum of privacy-preserving technologies that you can use. […] We want to make sure that the Internet remains an open, free, transparent platform.“ — David Mirza Ahmad

“Of course privacy matters. It’s a human right.” — Raymond Johansen

2. Conclusions

2.1. Thematic amplification
Conceived with the function of briefly investigating the issues related to the area of big data and digital surveillance, the User Profiled documentary introduces the background and some fundamental information on Watch Dogs 2’s fictional world, presenting the gaming experience as a space and instrument of creative interpretation and futuristic simulation [3].
The relevance of this subject, presented as a topic of public interest, fosters a semantic expansion of contents which increases the level of immersive possibilities connected with the knowledge of the intellectual property, also amplifying its narrative potential by establishing multiple relations between the actual technological context, the relating privacy issues and the
realistic cyber-dystopian gaming scenario.

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Predictable world — The promotional domain realized jointly by Sid Lee Paris, Stink Studio, and the University of Cambridge Psychometrics Lab offers an interactive dynamic experience to discover how digital data can be used to make scientific predictions on an individual using his behavioural record. The user can interact with and modify a set of information to see real time variations of his profile, with calculations about his personality, life expectancy, risk of criminal conduct, addictions, economic income and other entries, for a total of 70 data-driven predictions, calibrated using verified and scientific research methods, as a demonstration of how cyber-systems can visualize patterns of personal behaviour. The coverage of the initiative has involved 250 countries, using protocols from the API Magic Sauce and Facebook’s data on accounts.
The interactive experience lets users variate their personal entry data to predict different life conditions. See Stink Studio’s description.

The set of related promotional activities has several functions, including:

  • Sharing sources of narrative and creative inspiration, highlighting the realistic origin of the fictional world depicted in Watch Dogs 2.
  • Constituting a transmedia extension by expanding the indirect gaming background, with the possibility of exploring new independent content on various media channels, which encourages the user to imagine a hypothetical dystopian development of the story, with realistic warning elements already affecting our world.
  • Attracting a diversified audience through VICE’s notoriety, including both users interested in current issues or TV entertainment and affiliated gamers, seeking greater media coverage by testing innovative intersectoral synergies.
  • Potentially increasing the perceived feeling of commercial affiliation towards Ubisoft and VICE, showing the company’s sensitivity towards promoting high-profile historical, scientific, informative, political and social initiatives, as already done with other documentaries [4].
The Predictive World promo warns the users about data surveillance and invites them to discover how their information is already used to profile their lives.
Real hackers The related previous promotional initiative, DedSec R3bellion, invited the audience to join the hacker group against Haum, a smart home prototype developed by Blume, the evil corporation of Watch Dogs 2’s fictional world. The digital and live marketing campaign included Haum’s official website, its hacked version sabotaged by DedSec’s cyber-pirates, and an innovative real time hacking event set during a real guided tour of the Haum prototype building, where connected users could expose Blume’s illicit means of home surveillance, interacting via Facebook Live and Youtube Live.

2.2. Sectoral presence
Privacy, state surveillance and social manipulation are relevant narrative topics in many entertainment products, which build dystopian scenarios featuring totalitarian regimes, wicked corporations, conspiracy theories and anti-system movements. The topic of big data as distorted tool of biopolitical engineering represents a narrative coordinate with high-level communicative value and solid immersive potential, intimately connected with the spectator/user’s experience, both in real life and in the fictional world, and with many possibilities of content expansion and aesthetic creative appropriation.

In brief, the User Profiled initiative has three main communicative functions:

  1. Information and awareness
    In order to inform and promote a sense of awareness among the audience, targeting issues on how personal data is collected and analyzed, VICE’s investigation describes which governmental, private and criminal organizations are interested in obtaining personal data, warning the users on how they can protect their sensitive information with publicly available tools and questioning why the hacktivist community is standing up
    against surveillance policies to protect civil liberties.
  2. Desire of gaming interaction
    As a victim of misuse and exploitation in the real world, the user is invited to take part in the gaming scenario against the mass surveillance system, with the capability of influencing and controlling the environment, sabotaging the authority and reversing the damage of its own asset of dominance: devices and big data.
  3. Scientific simulation
    The Predictive World promotional domain invites users to share their personal information to discover how data can potentially define a subject’s profile, predicting behavioral patterns relating to educational, economic and health statistics, with the final result of previewing how computer programs will potentially be able to scientifically classify a citizen as a resource, underlining the remarkable technological achievements in this field but also the emergent risk of utilitarian idealization.

The overall result is a combination of informative content (as a realistic background to enter and deepen the fictional world’s setting)[5] and entertainment (the interactive gaming experience where to rebel against the dystopian scenario) that both underline, with different modalities and
functions, how technology can empower one’s personal identity, inspire civility and help building up communities, but also how big data can be misused to target privacy, transparency and civil rights, fuelling conflict and cyber-security warfare: these become fertile topics and informative elements in the construction of immersive narratives with high levels of realism, creative contamination and engagement.

Massive revelation — In 2013, in his first exclusive interview with Glenn Greenwald (The Guardian), Edward Snowden, former CIA employee, reveals the top-secret documents related to Prism, a cyber-surveillance program implemented by N.S.A. and the U.S. government, regarding international mass-scale spying operations on Internet traffic, emails and mobile phone use. [https://bit.ly/2ddSBcW] [https://youtu.be/GoM4jIZbTtQ] [https://youtu.be/BhdENw-vhDQ]
Social scandal — Christopher Wylie exposes Cambridge Analytica’s illicit activities, which have been accused of influencing Donald Trump’s electoral campaign by harvesting the users’ Facebook data to deliver specific content based on personal preferences, with the final intention of manipulating the people’s voting decision through the diffusion of altered news and feed.
Mr. Robot (Sam Esmail, 2015–2019) develops relevant themes such as cybersecurity, state surveillance, and conspiracy theories with many real world technological, geographical, and political references. The intellectual property was developed with an advanced transmedia asset, which expanded the narratives through an editorial initiative (Red Wheelbarrow; Elliot’s personal handwritten diary with notes, comments, and removable items), a VR experience (Mr. Robot Virtual Reality, a short movie dedicated to Elliot and Shayla’s date), an immersive promotional website (WhoIsMrRobot, designed as a simulated Linux desktop with additional material from the fictional world), and a gaming app (1.51exfiltrati0n, an interactive textual story for mobile devices), with Usa Network’s official website and social network profiles constantly updated with news and articles.
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The promotional site of the tv series Mr. Robot (Sam Esmail, 2015–2019), WhoIsMrRobot, hosts a simulation of the Linux operative system used by protagonist Elliot Alderson, young engineer, hacker and activist struggling with mental issues. The user can interact with the simulated desktop, enter specific commands into an active window, open folders with scanned documents, pictures, technical instructions, or play an integrated videogame designed by Fsociety, the anarchist group of hackers joined by Elliot. In addition with the content included in the domain, the Usa Network official website presents daily updates with news, interviews, videos, episode recaps, behind the scenes content and official products and gadgets, which expand the limit between actual topics and the world of Mr. Robot.
In the interactive gaming story for mobile devices, 1.51exfiltrati0n, the game begins when the user finds Darlene’s smartphone on the ground in Coney Island, through which he is automatically signed in E-Corp’s multinational messaging system, and then involved in data exchange from the device: real time messages, conversations with colleagues, exchange of photos and multiple choice dialogues form an unpredictable textual drama based on the user’s choices, which cover characters, locations, products and plots from the world of Mr. Robot.

Notes list

[1] (#1) “Everything we do online is being tracked. Our social media accounts track our likes and dislikes. Our browsers track our online purchases. Our smart devices track our location and daily routines. We generate more than 2.5 billion gigabytes of data every day. But what happens to it all?” | (#2) “Your personal data is valuable to corporations, governments, and criminals. […] VICE investigates a social experiment designed to find out how easily people will give up their personal, private information online.” — Original descriptions on VICE’s website.

[2] The video was originally published on VICE on October 4th (Episode #1) and October 11th (Episode #2). Ubisoft then published both videos on November 10th on its official Youtube Channel, close to Watch Dogs 2’s release date (announced for November 15th, 2016). An alternative credits version promotes the DedSec R3sistance live marketing initiative.
See https://bit.ly/2IfWQXo https://bit.ly/2IfezhN

[3] Another previous promotional initiative was DedSec R3sistance, diffused on a website-platform where Canadian users were invited to take part into a massive fictional hacking campaign (between September 14th and October 13th), by completing cyber missions and challenges against Haum’s (a smart home prototype created by Blume, the evil electronics company of Watch Dogs 2’s gaming world) corporate website, with related clues hidden online
and in physical locations in the city of Toronto. The final promotional event was a cyberattack in the real world, with users able to remotely hack the physical HAUM smart home prototype by commenting on Facebook Live and on Youtube Live, while other users were experiencing a demo live guided tour. Note: the domains (haumcanada.com, dedsec.haumcanada.com) are now been disconnected. The initiative recalled some features from Watch Dogs Live previous marketing initiative, and it was made in collaboration with Bleublancrouge, North Strategic, Czar Media, 1One Production. https://bit.ly/2UT40qo https://bit.ly/2G4uThU https://bit.ly/2PdYLwB https://bit.ly/2eG9yPn https://bit.ly/2Krrq2e https://bit.ly/2Ud1QNW

[4] See previous VICE’s promotional documentary initiatives: Superpower For Hire —Rise of the Private Military about the emergent and controversial role of private military corporations (in collaboration with Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, 2014); and Infected, about the risk and fear of a future massive pandemic (in collaboration with Tom Clancy’s: The Division, 2016).

[5] As a relevant example of branded marketing strategy, the world of Mr. Robot uses its accurate and believable cybersecurity theme to promote existing softwares and tools of data protection. As a curious initiative, see also Rami Malek (Mr. Robot) playing Watch Dogs 2.

Study method and sources
This document is the result of a compilation process created with scientific and accessibility requirements. Special care has therefore been devoted to coherently structuring the texts and analysis sections, to selecting functional visual devices, and to providing verified information by correctly citing sources of documentation, with the final objective of sharing useful material for the purposes of study, criticism and information.

References to all the sources consulted have been inserted using numbers in square brackets [] and reported in the references at the conclusion, with the relative explanatory notes.

Legal notice
The iconographic material, the trademarks (registered or unregistered) and all the information reported as being in any case protected belong to the respective owners. The internal use of protected material responds exclusively to a scientific and cultural intent.

The author releases the document through the license:

  • Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.
    This allows third parties to share the published material indicating the origin, respecting the same type of original license and prohibiting the use for commercial purposes.

Contacts
For information, communications or proposals for collaboration write to
Enrico Granzotto | e@humenhoid.com | Humenhoid.com

Written by

I’m a creative research unit specialized in immersive entertainment and transmedia storytelling with focus on cinema, tv series, and videogames| humenhoid.com

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