After playing Watch Dogs 2 and marveling at the accuracy of Ubisoft's recreation of the Bay Area, investigative journalist and researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation Dave Maass wanted to know if Ubisoft partnered with the local government to do it. So, as he detailed for Motherboard, he filed open records requests with government agencies in San Francisco and Oakland. He was looking for anything related to Ubisoft working with police departments to create the game, which is set in the near future and features hackers exploiting ubiquitous computer systems to fight back against the police state.
His request to San Francisco Police Department confirmed that in 2014, filmmakers working for Ubisoft had approached the SFPD to shoot an internal-only documentary. Ubisoft wanted realistic interviews and footage of officers that it could use as inspiration for the game. Though SF officials eventually turned down Ubisoft's documentary team, they responded to Maass's request quickly. Oakland Police Department, on the other hand, dragged its feet so much that Maass ended up filing a lawsuit in May of this year to force the department to release the documents. In August, because of Maass’s lawsuit, Oakland Police Department's Internal Affairs division launched an investigation into the department's handling of open records requests.
“We in the Internal Affairs Division are committed to ensuring professionalism and accountability throughout the Oakland Police Department by aggressively investigating all allegations of misconduct and improper procedures or service within the organization,” a letter sent to Maass states.
Last week, OPD finally turned over the relevant documents.
The records were hard-won, but they don't show too much information. In January 2015, film director Phil Jeudy contacted Shereda Nosakhare, a special assistant to newly inaugurated Mayor Libby Schaaf of Oakland, to arrange access for a Ubisoft editorial team. Nosakhare handed the email off to senior advisor Peggy Moore, noting that "it would be good to have someone [involved] that has Oakland's best interests at heart." Aside from a follow-up request from Ubisoft a few months later in March, that seems to be the end of Oakland's participation (at least via email.)
"WHEREAS…Dave Maass has been mildly annoying San Diego's politicos for the past three years"
There was no scandal hiding in the email archives at Oakland City Hall, but making use of open records laws is itself the entire point, Maass said. Open records laws like the Freedom of Information Act or the California Public Records Act are there for the public to use and government agencies to obey.
"[Open records law] is one of the primary tools that allows us to hold the government accountable. It starts with the principle that that government belongs to us and the things they create belong to us and we have a right to look at them—within reason,” he told me. “But in a world where the government is able to operate in secret, even when there's no reason for secrecy, that's when corruption and waste and abuse and fraud happen. That's when decisions that aren't in the interest of the people get made. So it's very important to not only have these laws but to use these laws and stand up for the integrity of these laws when they're being abused—even when it's in a seemingly low-stakes situation."
"If this results in a better public records system, that's the most I could have hoped for"
Maass has in the past filed requests for records pertaining to Comic Con, a staged Viking funeral, and the process behind renaming a city street after Star Wars actor Mark Hamill. The city of San Diego named February 13, 2013, "Dave Maass Day" with a proclamation that is, frankly, masterful: "WHEREAS…Dave Maass has been mildly annoying San Diego's politicos for the past three years…and WHEREAS Dave is personally responsible for no less than three staffers in the City Clerk's officer hired to handle his endless Public Records Act Requests." Maass enjoys filing records requests that show how the wheels of government interact with various "geeky" pursuits that he admits are unimportant.
But more to the point, putting these laws to the test often is important. Sensitive records of ongoing investigations are often exempt from open records requests for legitimate reasons. Filing seemingly frivolous requests is one way for the public to stress-test the system: Is Oakland not turning anything over because records are sensitive, or does Oakland PD have a systemic problem with how it responds to these requests?
"It's… very difficult to get lots of police records for criminal investigations, new technology—those can be a real hassle," Maass said. "But if you ask for something related to a video game, maybe that shows you how the process works because there's not a lot for them to exempt."
Maass says other activists have had trouble getting records out of the Oakland government. He's hopeful that his lawsuit and the internal affairs investigation will fix Oakland's public records processes so it can respond appropriately in cases where it really matters.
"If this results in a better public records system, that's the most I could have hoped for," Maass said. "Obviously it would have been awesome if they'd given me 200 pages of going back and forth with Ubisoft, but that doesn't seem to be what happened."
Ubisoft and Oakland Police Department did not respond immediately to comment on this story.