Watching the Watch Dogs: the ethical hackers protecting our smart cities

Barnaby Jack
Aiden Pearce has nothing on these guys

Until Ubisoft's Watch Dogs came along, we hadn't been this excited about a game involving hacking since Deus Ex had us honing our security terminal-cracking skills back in 2000.

Playing as protagonist Aiden Pearce, your main weapon is a smartphone that can be used to hack into (and control) surveillance cameras, traffic lights and other electronic devices connected to Chicago's central network in a bid to thwart enemies and evade the police.

While Watch Dogs' content director Thomas Geffroy claims that everything in the game is based on reality, some of Aiden's abilities are more far-fetched than others (speeding up hacked trains, for example, is still perhaps wishful thinking for many commuters). Others, however, are certainly being exploited today, and we're not going to argue with the game's creative director Jonathon Morin when he says that technology is a "wake up call".

The question is: who are you gonna call when society slips into an inevitable dystopian hackerfest ruled by offbeat vigilantes dressed in more layers than a GAP mannequin? We've picked out five security researchers who would be among the first on our list. If there's a real-life Watch Dogs exploit out there, the chances are that one of these guys has patched it.

1. Cesar Cerrudo

Occupation: Professional hacker and CTO of IOACtive Labs

Watch Dogs skill: Hacking traffic light control systems

Cesar Cerrudo

Cesar Cerrudo: sadly not dressed in green, amber and red

Image credit: Martin Lescano / YouTube

In Watch Dogs, Aiden can use his smartphone to hack traffic lights to turn them all green at the same time. As you might expect, this causes road rage levels to go through the roof as vehicles come together in a head-on scrum, allowing him to escape from pursuers.

Cesar Cerrudo, an Argentinan security researcher, claims that such a feat is relatively simple (worryingly so for those in control of traffic lights). In a blog post, he writes that all you need to hack into the traffic control systems of some of the world's biggest cities is $100 (to buy a cheap drone), a bit of hacking know-how and a few hours to kill.

After attaching a Sensys Networks Wireless transmitter (a type of embedded roadside sensor that sends traffic data to a data centre) to the drone, he was able to intercept and manipulate traffic light signals from a certain distance.

He could then trick the lights to cause a pile-up or even re-route traffic. Cerrudo says he was inspired by the Bruce Willis movie Live Free or Die Hard (which features a terrorist who controls traffic lights, no less), but don't worry: he reported his findings at a security conference after directly contacting Sensys about the vulnerability.

2. Barnaby Jack

Occupation: Hacker, programmer and security expert

Watch Dogs skill: Hacking ATMs

Barnaby Jack

Barnaby Jack was a computer expert and "white hat" (non-malicious) hacker famous for achieving what most people dream of one day: making ATMs gush cash like Niagara Falls (a process that became known as "jackpotting").

Before his untimely death in 2013 (an autopsy recorded a verdict of accidental drug overdose), Jack appeared at the Black Hat Security Conference in July 2010 where he hacked an ATM live on stage using a master key downloaded off the internet, the machine's IP number and a telephone, draining it of its cash reserves in the process.

The elite hacker from New Zealand spent years analysing ATM flaws, honing his skills to carry out attacks either at the terminals themselves or remotely. He began working with vendors to help them patch security holes and prevent malicious attacks, in addition to exposing flaws in peacemakers and other medical devices.

In Watch Dogs, ATMs show Microsoft's infamous 'blue screen of death' to indicate that Aiden has successfully withdrawn money from other people's bank accounts. We reckon they're probably still running Windows XP.

Kane Fulton
Kane has been fascinated by the endless possibilities of computers since first getting his hands on an Amiga 500+ back in 1991. These days he mostly lives in realm of VR, where he's working his way into the world Paddleball rankings in Rec Room.