New video game website reveals a world of cyber surveillance

A promotional site for the upcoming game Watch Dogs streams real-time data from London, Paris and Berlin

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 3:11pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 June, 2013, 6:01pm

Ubisoft, the makers of an upcoming video game starring a hacker-turned-hero, have released a promotional website for the game that lets users look at an astonishing stream of real-time data currently being shared in three major European cities.

The site, a promotional campaign for the big-budget video game, Watch Dogs, is titled “WeareData,” and went live on Tuesday. It tracks a smorgasbord of information from London, Paris and Berlin, and gives users the chance to view it all on an interactive map that is updated in real-time. The map frequently uploads new data from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Flickr and email accounts, and also showcases infrastructure and other city-related information, including CCTV locations and crime statistics.

“With WeareData, visitors will discover that much of the hyper-connected world imagined in Watch Dogs already is a reality, and that everything and everyone is truly connected,” a Ubisoft statement reads. “The amount of and potential uses for public and personal information that is readily available online has never been more relevant, as evidenced by today’s headlines.”

After a city is chosen on the WeareData site, clicking on a district displays something out of a high-tech spy movie. Choosing London, for example, reveals Moorgate Station of the London Underground, a real-time view of the trains moving to and from the station and a constantly refreshing colour-coded map of social media transmitting from the area. Clicking on blue or orange dots reveals a tweet or Instagram photo that just went online, clicking on red dots shows off public structures like traffic lights and clicking on a yellow dot reveals that a mobile phone call was made in that particular location. 

Despite the sheer amount instantly viewable with just a few clicks, the WeareData site makes it clear that all of this information is already public and is now only being aggregated in one place for easy access. While the site’s 3D maps may reveal the locations of mobile phone calls or email messages via 3G or wi-fi networks, the numbers dialed and message content still remain confidential. Location-tagged social media posts are also the only data bits viewable on the site, and posts from private accounts are not displayed.

“WeareData gathers available geo-located data in a non-exhaustive way,” a statement on the site reads. “We only display the information for which we have been given the authorization by the sources.”

The intent of the site is to mirror the world depicted in the Watch Dogs game, an adventure title which takes place in a fictionalised Chicago constantly under cyber-surveillance by an entity known as the Central Operating System. In the game, the player assumes the role of an antihero who must circumvent authority, hacking into smartphones and other electronics systems in order to uncover conspiracies surrounding the urban metropolis. According to the site, the game’s futuristic depiction of Chicago “is not fiction anymore. Smart cities are real, it’s happening now. A huge amount of data is collected and managed every day in our modern cities, and those data are available for everybody.”

Watch Dogs, which arrives on both PC and video game consoles in November of this year, is launching at an appropriate time. With debates on cyber-surveillance and the activities of United States whistle-blower Edward Snowden currently making global headlines, Ubisoft senior producer Dominic Guay says that while production on the game started years ago, there has never been a more “relevant topic” for Watch Dogs to showcase.

"We're just as surprised as everyone else," Guay said in an Associated Press report. "We've been working on this game for the past five years and locked down the script last year. These events keep transpiring in the news — whether it's the NSA or using a cellphone to hack into a car — that mirror the ideas that we have in the game."

Both Watch Dogs and WeareData have attracted widespread attention from internet users. Some commentators on gaming website Kotaku are excited for what they think will be an “amazing game,” while others are calling the WeareData website “super creepy.”

“The setting that the game is based on is not far from becoming reality,” one commentator said. “Being under constant watch [and] control is already underway whether people like it or not.”

On Twitter, under the hashtag #watchdogs, one netizen had a slightly different prediction.

“You know what’s going to happen,” the tweet read. “Someone’s going to mod [the] Watch Dogs PC [version] to have Ed Snowden as the main character.”