When the youth of 2065 gather around my knees and ask what life was like in the Bay Area back during the Snowden years, I will simply warm up my Sony Playstation 4 emulator and make them watch me replay Watch Dogs 2. The game so precisely encapsulates the zeitgeist of the mid-twenty-teens, I would tell them, that I filed a lawsuit in 2018 to learn more about how it was made.
In this game from publisher Ubisoft, the player explores an open world through the eyes of a young hacktivist, Marcus, who in turn views the world through the lenses of breached security cameras and his laptop-controlled quadrotor drone. The landscapes gleam with authenticity: the houseboat communities of Marin County, the grimy allies of the Tenderloin, the tech giants’ sprawling campuses, the sandstone of Stanford University. Just as realistic are the anxieties and fascinations that emerge from the idle conversations you overhear (and text messages you illegally intercept) from the non-player characters who populate the city—most of whom have bank accounts you can hack from your phone.
In February 2017, I was recovering in my Western Addition apartment after a knee surgery. It was the longest I’d ever taken off from my job at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where I investigate how police technology undermines civil liberties and use the information to force change. It’s not a quarter as action-packed as it sounds. Most of my days are spent on conference calls, sending Freedom of Information Act requests, and drafting online activism campaigns. And yet, during this extended convalescence, with Watch Dogs 2 as my chief distraction, I began to experience a strange feeling of living in two overlapping realities. I was playing the video game version of my day job—but with shootouts, high speed chases, and reckless violations of the Computer Fraud & Abuse Act.
Marcus and his hacker crew, DedSec, embark on missions ripped from the headlines that have dominated my attention for years. You track “stingray” devices that masquerade as cell phone towers. You uncover police and corporate algorithms that profile communities of color. You butt heads with man-bunned tech bros and steal back a hip-hop album from an obnoxious pharma exec modelled after Martin Shkreli. Botnets. Ransomware. Rideshares. Smart homes.
I hit pause on gameplay. I wondered, the game is so detailed, is it possible that Ubisoft found some sort of assistance from the government? Did city leaders care how it might impact the region’s image? Were police concerned that when a mission goes wrong, players frequently find themselves mass-murdering officers in the street?
My character, Marcus, would answer these questions by hacking into the gorgeously rendered City Hall. I did it the less interesting way: I filed public records requests.
In San Francisco, I asked the mayor’s office, the police department, and the Arts Commission for all records related to Ubisoft and Watch Dogs 2. In Oakland, I only asked the police department, since one of the major side plots tracks a definitely-not-implausible corruption case.
Mayor Ed Lee’s office only had a single responsive record: an email containing a round-up of news links, including one titled, “Muni transit ‘hack’ bears striking resemblance to SF-hacking game ‘Watch Dogs 2.’” It wasn’t a great find, although it did underline my belief that the two worlds were feeding each other. The Arts Commission spokesperson responded, “I've never heard of this and do not believe our department had anything to do with this.”
With the San Francisco Police Department, I struck gold. The department provided me with an email thread where filmmakers for Ubisoft approached SDPD in March 2014. They were shooting footage for a documentary that would only be shown internally to creative teams to help them “to create a realistic and believable universe, but also rich, intense, with the right atmosphere.” Ubisoft’s research director, whose name was redacted in the emails, asked for interviews and to accompany officers on patrol, as well as film the station in the Tenderloin.
“I would add that our desire is to accurately reflect the perception of the SFPD about crime, your working hardness and not the prejudices,” he said. “As a matter of fact, my father was a police officer in France and I know how one can convey false ideas about the police.”
The police consulted with the City Attorney’s office and after an internal meeting to discuss the themes of Ubisoft’s games, they turned the filmmakers down. I raised an eyebrow at this: at the time, I also sat on the city board that oversees violations of San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance, which, among other transparency measures, requires personnel to provide information about policies and procedures.
Nevertheless, I applaud SFPD for turning over the records in a timely manner. OPD is another story.
As the months dragged on, OPD continued to slide past deadlines. Meanwhile, I found the real and virtual worlds continuing to merge. On Record Store Day, an annual event to promote independent music retailers, I bought the Watch Dogs 2 soundtrack by Hudson Mohawke. The artist’s name is a play on the Bruce Willis film Hudson Hawk, which also happened to be an early codename for AT&T’s secret “Hemisphere” phone surveillance program. I collected all the _Watch Dogs 2-_branded clothing and cosplayed as Marcus at San Diego Comic Con and DragonCon. Inside the game, I had Marcus take out his cellphone and shoot selfies in front of the virtual Internet Archive building, as I had done before in the real world.
More than a year passed since I filed my request with OPD, which blamed the delay on the IT department. The law requires it to provide an estimate when records will be identified and produced, and even though OPD was advised by city officials to do, it had continued to leave me in limbo.
As of now, 15 months have passed since I filed my request. I know what Marcus and DedSec would do. They’d shut off the lights, neutralize a half-dozen security guards with stun grenades, pilot a jumper drone through an air shaft, then hack the servers.
Me? I filed a lawsuit against OPD to liberate the documents under the California Public Records Act.
Suing a police department over a video game may sound frivolous to some. It won’t uncover police brutality or exonerate a death row inmate. But investigative records like those are often impossible to obtain due to various confidentiality loopholes. There aren’t likely to be those loopholes for communications with a documentary filmmaker. Considering that OPD has a much more prominent role in the game than SFPD—including a whole side mission related to corruption—it would indeed be enlightening to see if officials cooperated with the crew. In fact, Ubisoft’s research director told SFPD it would be reaching out to other departments.
If OPD can’t produce documents for something as ordinary as Watch Dogs 2, then the bigger problem is a deficient public records process. It’s my hope that in addition to satisfying my curiosity about my favorite game, the suit will also ratchet up the pressure on OPD to better comply with transparency laws for everyone.
Ultimately, there may be no records. The filmmakers may have skipped Oakland after their rejection in San Francisco. Or OPD may have already automatically purged the emails because so much time has passed. Either way, OPD’s failure to respond is unacceptable.
It’s important to preserve this snapshot of the Bay Area, since Watch Dogs 2 is already outdated. Dockless electric scooters don’t clutter the sidewalks. None of the non-player characters are complaining to each other about the Trump administration. Gamers point to Easter egg clues that suggest Watch Dogs 3 may be set in London.
Guess what, DedSec. England’s got a Freedom of Information Act, too.
Dave Maass is senior investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, although this lawsuit was filed in his personal capacity with representation from the Law Office of Andrew Serros. This views in the piece do not reflect the positions of his employer. He served on the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force 2016-2018 and was a recipient of the First Amendment Coalition’s Free Speech and Open Government award.