If the FBI are watching me, they should have burst through the door by now


Watch Dogs 2 (2016)

It was the new big fear of the 80s and 90s – hacking. What is it? How is it done? Probably not a single film or TV programme has gotten it right. I’m sure they nailed some of the details – half-Scottish half-Russian turbonerd Boris Grishenko from GoldenEye had the annoying, smug attitude down to a tee, up to and including having the effrontery to give back chat to a scarred and heavily deranged Sean Bean. He also typed like the wind as well; we were treated to several close ups of his furiously whizzing hands when we probably should have been seeing Bond throw a few remote mines and descend into near-madness trying to keep Natalya safe. For all of his self-serving chat, poor old Boris couldn’t do the business when it mattered and ultimately died a death befitting a weasel, when he was frozen in place amidst an exploding enemy base. Not so invincible after all.

Boris’s timely demise pretty much proves that hackers can’t really cut it in a man’s world. After all, what good is one-handed hacking against explosives and handguns? In the interests of self-preservation, it’s probably best for hackers to keep themselves confined to their Dorito-musked bedrooms and collapse governments from their own beanbags.

But that doesn’t mean hackers have to be losers, right? I chanced upon an almost surreal scene of the cult film Hackers, where Jonny Lee Miller gets dumped into a cop car while repeatedly screaming “HACK THE PLANET”, as if it were some frightful call to arms to a billion geeks out there, a dweeby Batsignal to get those keyboards moving and finally destroy the evil gubberment once and for all. I liked Jonny Lee Miller, he was a right swindler in Trainspotting (released a year later) and this film seemed to be his big break. After all, he married Angelina Jolie on the strength of it, so he must have done a damn good job.

So I did a bit of “hacking” on my own and acquired the movie file on my own hackstation (that is to say, my ancient laptop). What followed was an absolute pastiche of the 1990s, where the actors and actresses just sort of staggered about looking bemused, nearly asphyxiating themselves as they awkwardly tried to deliver lines about 28.8 bps modems and millions of psychedelic colours. Every so often, a hacking sequence would occur where the camera would turn first person and lurch us around what looked to be city skycrapers made up of code. When these LSD-infused sequences would end, the characters would rollerblade off into the radical sunset to a banging 90s dance soundtrack.

Well, despite its rather kitschy nature, I thought Hackers was fairly enjoyable. I can see why it achieved cult status. But I can’t say I was educated – I didn’t come away with the nuclear codes or the second Fappening, so what was the point of that? I don’t think hackers are among the most attractive students in high school, I certainly wouldn’t say that they’d have the nuts to put it up to the FBI several times and there’s absolutely no way that Angelina Jolie would have left the school jock to run into the arms of the oddball new kid, no matter how good he is at Wipeout.

But it must have resonated with some video game producer or developer at Ubisoft, because twenty years later they moreorless took the plot of Hackers, added mobile phones and the Internet of things, threw in a few Grand Theft Auto mechanics such as the shooting, the driving, the sadistic torture of innocent passers-by… then slapped on the title of Watch Dogs 2 (there was apparently a Watch Dogs 1 but I think it only existed as an E3 preview video) and called it a day.

Every one of the tropes are there – new kid on the block with an impressive geek past but an otherwise socially awkward nature meets fellow misfits, the fearsome e-leader of which turns out to be a girl (surprise surprise). They outwit the government and large tech companies time and time again with all kinds of virtuous operations, portraying the FBI in particular as some kind of modern day dinosaur ranch.

The evil suited organisations in the game seem to hire apparently high-ranking men who look at a mobile phone or a laptop like people from certain reaches of Ireland still look at the moon at night. Many of the characters are either maligned members of a racist society or look like parodies of works that you absolutely never want to see, and it’s likely that all of these people are routinely and viciously bullied, hence they don’t talk about school or college much.

Watch Dogs 2 puts you in control of Marcus, an appropriately smug and self-satisfied hacker who gets framed up by a security and information company that isn’t Facebook or Google and doesn’t sell its users’ information. Marcus meets kindred spirits in the hacking group DedSec, and embarks on a swashbuckling adventure across a well-rendered San Francisco, recruiting all of the Melvins he can to build up a veritable e-army against these mega-rich, omniscient shysters.

Look, I’m not going to claim I understand any of what I just wrote. Hacktivism? Cyber stealth? Wi-Fi? What is all of that? Watch Dogs 2 did confound me a little bit at first, when I realised the old GTA approach of stocking up on throwable C4 and blowing away any have-a-go heroes and overenthusiastic coppers wasn’t really going to fly. This game actually does see you embroil yourself in online espionage, as you sneak around enemy buildings to hack terminals, retrieve sensitive data, or otherwise catch someone in a video with their pants down. I’m sure it’s a lot more authentic than the 1995 film that almost certainly inspired it, although if a real-life hacker equips themselves with a drone that drops infinite bombs then we’ll certainly know all about it.

You might even see this for yourself in-game, as it seems to have a strange habit of occasionally involving online strangers in your single player missions, who will probably destroy any semblance of stealth you may have been building up. Hey, DedSec is all about new recruits, right? But I’ve never understood why these inevitably Russian players spawn in, drive about endlessly, cause an absolute commotion replete with nasty lag, and then despawn again.

Circumstances dictated that I never got to finish Watch Dogs 2, despite me very much enjoying the flow of the single player campaign – even if I only caught every third word from the DedSec crew. I presume it ends with the plucky, verbose hackers pulling off the big stroke against the megacorporation and becoming hacking legends among their hundreds of thousands of peers – they’ll never have to pay for another pizza or bottle of Mountain Dew for the rest of their days! Wow, hacking and internet counterculture sure became mainstream all of a sudden, didn’t it? That’s an awful lot of Boris Grishenkos, bashing away at keys looking for God knows what.

Your full name, social service numbers, date of birth, hundreds of photos of you, bank details, mother’s maiden name, your dog’s favourite chew toy, the whole lot – you’ve probably put it out there yourself. And as DedSec constantly remind us, you are worth less than the information you produce. Hack the Planet? No need Jonny, we’ve already hacked ourselves. No wonder the hacktivists need to take it to the net and reboot the enemy… or something like that.

28 December 2017

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