Violet Blue grew up in San Francisco, and she writes about hacker culture and cybercrime in the region’s hacking community. That made Blue, an author and tech journalist, the ideal conduit between the hacktivist community and the game developers at Ubisoft, maker of Watch Dogs 2.
Watch Dogs 2, an action-adventure game with stealth elements, debuts November 15 on the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Windows PC. It’s set in San Francisco, and it depicts the hacktivist community’s conflict with privacy-invading corporations that have created a “smart city.” This is Ubisoft’s major release of the fall season, and its creators hope that it will give communities and corporations pause when it comes to the quick-and-dirty implementation of the internet of things (devices connected to the web) and smart cities.
Blue’s job (she also happens to write a popular column on sex) was to introduce developers like Thomas Geffroyd, Ubisoft’s director of brand content, to real hackers. I interviewed Blue at a recent Watch Dogs 2 press event, and she said that the characters in the game represent actual people that she knows in the hacktivist community. It’s one more example of the intersection of tech, video games, and science fiction — a topic that we’ll be writing about more and talking about at our GamesBeat 2017 events. We discussed the connection between real life and fiction in a one-on-one interview.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Tell me more about your background.
Violet Blue: I’m an author. I wrote a book on digital privacy called The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy. I’m a journalist by trade. I write about hacking and cybercrime — computer crime specifically. I was brought in to consult on Watch Dogs 2 about hacker culture, hacker history, and hacking in San Francisco. I’m a native of the city. I worked on the game for a couple of years.
GamesBeat: Did you come onboard after the original Watch Dogs?
Blue: Yeah, they approached me after the first game. It was a lot of fun. I got to take them out to places and met up at conferences and things like that. I introduced them to different people. Kind of curating a bit so they could see top to bottom and side to side what different aspects of hacker culture are like. The different motivations of different kinds of hackers, things like that. And the diversity of hacker culture.
GamesBeat: I’ve followed a fair amount of turmoil over the last few years in hacktivism.
Blue: Yeah, it’s an ongoing drama.
GamesBeat: How early did you begin following things like that, the rise of Anonymous and the like?
Blue: I grew up here in San Francisco. My mother was an engineer, a Stanford grad. She was working in Silicon Valley when I was a kid. We always had computers in the house, things like that. I’ve always been involved in computer culture in San Francisco, hacking culture here. That’s something I’ve been steeped in.
As a writer and a journalist, it was only natural to start covering those things. But it was nice because I have a technical background in what’s being done in different hacks and things like that. I had a great advantage in that and also because there were people here in the San Francisco community I could talk to. “Hey, I don’t know about this. How is this done? Is this possible?”
GamesBeat: I have trouble separating some of the different subcultures. Silicon Valley is all about tech and engineering. It’s always been associated with openness as a cause. Closed ecosystems and closed platforms are something nobody seems to like. But there’s a part of the subculture that’s more … anarchistic, maybe? I don’t know how you’d describe it.
Blue: That’s pretty accurate. Different corners of the hacking community have their own motivations and reasons. What people call hacktivism they immediately associate with something like Anonymous, but there are lots of different kinds of people who identify as hacktivists. It’s easy to paint them all with the same brush in relation to things like anarchy, especially since we don’t get very many different portrayals of hackers and hacker groups.
There’s an incredible diversity of hackers — everything from hobbyists to makers to people who want to teach classes or build companies out of finding security vulnerabilities. These are all part of hacker culture and hacker groups, but we never see that portrayed on television. We never see that in the movies. We just see the same stereotypes over and over again. And in reporting and journalism, we tend to get the portrait of a criminal in a hoodie, you know? That diversity isn’t shown. It’s all genders, all colors, all orientations. It’s pretty frustrating.
GamesBeat: What were you trying to communicate about that, then, through the game? That they’re not just these identical criminals?
Blue: Exactly. It was an incredible opportunity to work with Ubisoft in this fashion. Not only did I have an opportunity to show them accurate hacker culture — who we are and what we look like — but also more accuracy in other areas.
GamesBeat: I hear more and more about smart cities at every big tech event I go to. Companies are running with this idea, and they don’t seem to be slowing down.
Blue: Right? There’s no one telling them that this could be kind of a bad idea — to put all these eggs in one basket. Watch Dogs as a franchise has been so prescient.
GamesBeat: One of the big subplots seems to be this idea of hacktivists keeping corporations at bay, as opposed to just government.
Blue: That’s the hope, right? If there’s a hope in hacktivism, it’s that people who are sort of the Robin Hoods of information. There was a hacker who took down a hacking firm, a company that was selling surveillance to despotic governments, so they could track their citizens through Facebook and things like that. These guys were making tons of money doing that, selling to Sudan and places like that. A hacker published everything about them online and brought all this to light. It woke people up to this sort of hacker ethos. They wrote a guide after they did it, how they hacked into this company. The title was something like, “For People Who Can’t Wait For Whistleblowers.”
GamesBeat: What about the game, looking at the finished product, do you recognize as representing the real world?
Blue: So much. It’s crazy how much I can pick out. When I first saw it, I thought, “I know these people. These are my friends. They all look like people I know.” Everybody wearing buttons — there’s kind of a ’90s punk-rock style around hacking. Stickers on your laptop. Lots of black. Also, the way they’ve captured my city is blowing my mind. They completely understood that each of our neighborhoods has its own flavor and style.
With the hacks that they do, they don’t do anything that’s unrealistic, really. They use gear that’s available, things you can buy. So far, there’s nothing I know of that’s something you’d see on CSI or whatever, something super faked.
GamesBeat: There’s some kind of Facebook-like or Google-like company down on the peninsula.
Blue: Right. Living in San Francisco, we know that big evil is just down the street [Laughs]. For San Franciscans, it’s an interesting experience.
GamesBeat: What’s your own assessment as far as how worried we should be about someone taking control of a city like this?
Blue: We definitely see some misconceptions like the baby-monitor hack. A woman, a hacker, found vulnerabilities in a baby monitor, and suddenly, there was hysteria everywhere. “Oh no, creepy old guys are hacking into my baby monitor and chatting with my baby.” In fact, she’s one of the brightest people out there at what she does. She has a rare gift. This is her area of expertise. It’s not as if just anyone can come along and do these hacks.
It is a bit frightening once you start to see how hackable things are, how there’s always a weak link in the security chain somewhere. And with smart cities, I don’t think people are thinking these things all the way through. But the reality is a lot of these things are only within reach of people who are much more advanced than the average person. Not just anybody can do this.
GamesBeat: Can you cut Ubisoft some slack as far as making some things more fictional for the sake of fun?
Blue: Oh, yeah. From what I understand so far, they’ve shortened the boring parts of hacking. You press X, and you’re in [Laughs]. Otherwise, you’d be staring at lines of code for hours, and that’s not a game I want to play. But they’ve kept the rules around the things that you can hack within reason. You have to do layering. You have to use strategy to make these tools work because they still have real-life shortcomings.
GamesBeat: Do you have a strong opinion about what the heroes of a story like this should be like? There are a lot of ways you could paint a hacker protagonist.
Blue: It’s close to what they did with [Watch Dogs 2 protagonist] Marcus. Marcus really accurately reflects not only people I know, but … I really dislike the way that people like Edward Snowden or Julian Assange have been made into heroes without any critical thinking around them. In hacker communities, there’s a lot of criticism of people like them, a lot of critical consideration, but you don’t really hear about that. I feel like hero worship is dangerous. It removes the important criticism. It implies belief rather than relying on fact, which is a very hacker way of thinking. They prefer facts and accuracy over everything else.
Marcus is an anti-hero, and I think that’s a much more accurate kind of hero, rather than just some kind of savior.