Tech by VICE

Phone Hacking Game ‘Replica’ Is Blunt and All Too Real

Snooping through a prisoner’s phone is a great puzzle, but the politics are ham-handed.

by Ian Birnbaum
Jul 16 2016, 1:00pm
In a bleak, pixelated prison cell, I see only the light of a locked phone screen. As a teenager arrested by Homeland Security, I've been given another kid's phone and told to break in. I need to get them information if I want to be set free myself.

In real life, our phones contain so much information that they arguably hold our whole lives. In Replica, this phone is this kid's whole world. The phone contains multiple apps, nested folders and subfolders, web searches history, and it will tell me everything I need to know if I have the gall to ask it.

My Homeland Security handler insists that I ask it.

So, I do. Replica is a puzzle game where the puzzle is cracking someone else's passwords to invade their privacy. Some of the puzzles are really clever. Trying to break the phone's lock-screen password, my mind wanders over listicles about the most common passwords used by thousands of users who can't be bothered with good cyber security. I type 1-2-3-4 and 0-0-0-0 and birthdays and pets' names and "FUCK" and "TITS."

Mostly, though, Replica's passwords to specific apps or folders are found through references elsewhere in the phone. Cracking a password and logging into a new app gives access to new materials that might be referenced for other passwords, and rolling that snowball down the hill is genuinely pleasing.

The trouble is, cracking these passwords sends a pile of new information to my Homeland Security handler, who is only too happy to yammer about how wonderfully crooked the whole thing is. Unfortunately, this is where Replica gets wobbly. In Replica, the government has enacted expansive police powers and stripped even the appearance of digital privacy and limited surveillance. They're looking for anything that could be evidence of terrorism, even the presence of apps the government can't spy on. Clicking on a fictional version of Gmail flags it for my handler. Yep, this teenager isn't using the government-approved email app. Definitely a terrorist.

The political nuances here are poorly handled and distinctly lacking in shades of gray. On one occasion, I try to click on a collection of phone pictures labeled "private" and secured with a second password. My handler squeals with glee: an extra password proves he's guilty! There's no reason anyone would use passwords except to hide their terrorism, obviously.

I feel like any thinking adult would assume that a password-protected folder on a teenager's phone will be full of pictures of his dick. That my handler never considered that possibility breaks the illusion for me—and I had that illusion broken over and over again by flat character writing.

Still, cracking passwords is damn good fun. Replica's finest results came when I forgot about my dumb caricature of a handler and focused on the overlapping, spiraling layers of social data that form a good puzzle: Let's see… Here's a picture of my dad. First, I should turn on location services. Done. Now I'll check the metadata on that picture. Yep, it's geo-tagged with an address. That's probably this kid's home address. Perfect.

I flag that information and get a happy green checkmark, a major chord, and a smooth hit of dopamine on solving a puzzle. Only afterward do I think that this kid was refusing to give out his address, and I've just given the location of his family home to this Homeland Security guy. I feel a little ill when I think about how happily other thoughtful, conscientious people might help government agents hurt other citizens.

Replica makes me think, even a bit, about the tense dynamics of privacy, surveillance, and security, and that's damn impressive for a $3 game. The game also has multiple endings, each one branching away from moments when you, the player, might choose to disobey your handler and protect the owner of the phone. Each action affects the story and the ending, and though none of them are wonderfully written, many of them are worth exploring. All of them are worth thinking about.

Replica is out now on Steam and Itchio.