These Cities Are Made For Watchin’

Watch Dogs, by Ubisoft, has finally come out. In this game, you play an urban hacker in Chicago, who can hack into the operating system of the city and turn the very built environment into a weapon. We have talked about the game earlier in the context of how data-driven urban infrastructures create new possibilities of looking at the city and acting in it — for governments, citizens and hackers.

As part of the advertisement campaign for the game, Devin Graham has directed a short action sequence that brings together parkour running and urban hacking. This amazing clip shows how we inhabit the city both physically and informationally — and can hack it by going beyond the designed circuits of physical movement, and access to information and data-driven control systems.

Such concerns about the collapsing of physical and or informational dimensions of the city is not something that begins with the integration of computers into urban infrastructure. One of the greatest explorations of this topic can be found in Gillo Pontecorvo’s ‘The Battle of Algiers.’ The film narrates the incidents of urban guerilla warfare in Algiers during the Algerian War of 1954-62. Throughout the film, the physicality and the knowledge about the urban spaces of Algiers — divided into the ‘modern’ French town and the ‘native’ city of casbah — is the very object and site of struggle for control of the city. Throughout the film, it is crucial for the French police and military to dominate urban mobility by gaining information about identities, intentions and locations of the Algerians. Converesely, the Algerian guerilla hides their existence not only through physical means (dresses and wells) but also through their knowledge of the alleys of casbah. Interestingly, one of the most iconic sequence of the film is of a boy hijacking a microphone system at a city checkpost and using it to announce pro-Algeria messages.

Tom Brewster raises the obvious question of whether increasing integration of software and software-controlled hardware into the body of cities is making it more vulnerable to cyber-attacks. Last year, Kashmir Hill, senior online editor at Forbes, demonstrated how common security-lapses can allow strangers to gain web-based control over ‘smart home’ devices. Brewster further shows how these vulenerabilities of smart systems may not only come from mistakes while deploying or configuring them, but can simply be caused by sloppy code:

“To prove the point, a researcher from security consultancy IOActive recently showed that vulnerabilities in road sensors relaying information to traffic lights could be exploited to turn them from red to green, or keep them on a certain colour. The potential impact is all too obvious: traffic carnage and deadly accidents… Many of the weaknesses are basic, [Cesar Cerrudo] says: devices often don’t do adequate validation of the data being sent to them, failing to check whether malicious streams of information are being sent rather than legitimate bits and bytes determining their functions.”

There is a pattern here: Watch Dogs imagines a smart city that is under control of ‘corrupt officials’ and ‘elite hackers;’ Hill talks about errors commited by uses that expose smart devices; and Brewster reveals how internal shortcomings of smart systems may lead to real-world disasters. In all these narratives, something needs to go wrong — either the people running the smart city, the people deploying the smart systems, or the software running the smart systems — for the smart city to hit a 404 page (or worse).

Such an imagination of the ‘threat’ of smart cities completely ignores the physical and informational surveillance that will be undertaken as normal everyday life in a smart city. Data coming out of such surveillance devices will of course be consumed and acted upon by machines and humans alike — as Edward Snowden’s revealations have shown. Further, this entire surveillance will often take place without the residents noticing or giving attention to. Neither the governments nor the corporates, the key controllers of such smart city utilities, have much reputation when it comes to respecting electronic privacy of people, or sensitising the users to seriously consider terms of data usage before using a product/service. The big threat of smart cities does not come from malfunctioning or abuse of those systems, but from their normal usages. These are cities made for watching, and they don’t necessarily come with in-built mechanisms for citizens to watch the watchers.

Courtesy: Thank to Emile Hooge for the Watch Dogs parkour video link.