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'We kill people based on metadata,' and other ways Watch Dogs explores modern war

I’m watching a woman who is about to be attacked by someone from her past. She has no idea she’s in danger, not yet. The man shows up, and my data shows he's about to do ... something. I emerge from the shadows before he attacks, and he slinks off, spooked by my presence.

"He’ll be back one day," the gravelly-voiced character says in voice over. But he didn't commit a crime in this moment. He didn’t step over the line that would justify my use of violence.

I’m tempted to put a bullet in the back of his head anyway.

A human-shaped drone

The protagonist of Watch Dogs is yet another boring dude who kind of sounds like someone doing a bad Batman impression, and the story is yet another series of events propelled along by the murder of women around him, but the game does introduce a number of interesting moral questions. The game may do a poor job of addressing its own use of technology, but the idea that this technology is helpful in the right hands can still feel troubling to anyone who has paid attention to how our government obtains and uses information about its citizens.

Plus, it's kind of flattering to be told our hands are the right ones. We can help people by spying on them, if giving half a chance. It's the other folks who abuse this authority.

You see a little bit of data about everyone around you when you look at your magical Watch Dogs cell phone, tiny bits of unsavory aspects of their lives that could, in the wrong hands, be used to blackmail or hurt that individual. Every non-player character in the game coughs up a tiny little secret to you, and it can be anything from their amount of debt to their sexuality.

Sometimes you have the option of stopping crimes as they’re committed, and the optimal situation for the player is to wait until you have direct proof a crime was going to be committed, and you leave the perpetrator alive.

In one example I knew a character was going after someone, and I was careful not to repeat the same mistakes. You don’t want to jump the gun and have the bad guy walk away, free to attack their target the next time you’re not around to stop it.

I could have acted before the pulled the gun, but then I would be beating someone who had yet to commit a crime

This time the man got out a gun and shot his target, almost before I could do anything. I caught him, and gave him a beating with my baton that left him unconscious for the police, but that’s cold comfort to the dead victim. I could have acted before the pulled the gun, but then I would be beating someone who had yet to commit a crime.

For all I know the firearm was legal and he had a permit to carry. At that point I’m just a guy who is beating up another guy who is exercising his second amendment rights. I’d be breaking his legs on the assumption that, if I don’t, he’ll hurt or kill someone. An assumption I’m making based on private information I got from phone records or data I pulled from the system.

My look into the data made me see the world as a list of people who are guilty until proven innocent, and made me long for the freedom to be pro-active, to attack and kill before these targets have a chance to do damage.

I've made decisions about who to rob based on those snippets of data floating around their head. Maybe I took your money if I learn you had political views with which I don't agree. Maybe my trigger finger slips if I knew you were involved with more heinous forms for pornography. These damning details of your life, your private and sometimes terrible transgressions, feel like they give me permission to take things from you, up to and including your life.

These details have no context, and you don’t always listen to phone conversations or texts, you just get the information about the people as flat declarations. It’s metadata, the broad information the government pulls from our phone call history and movement patterns to try to understand who we are, and whether we’re not up to no good.

"We kill people based on metadata," former head of the National Security Agency Gen. Michael Hayden once famously said during a debate. What you say is unimportant compared to who you say it to, and when you say it.

Watch Dogs gives you a sense of that power, and it’s interesting how often I was tempted to kill people who had committed no crime in my presence. How often I was tempted to simply erase the potential criminal, or someone I thought was a criminal, in order to avoid the tight, golden moment that exists between the drawn gun and the fired round.

Because my phone told me that person, statistically, was going to do something bad. Not killing them felt like the wrong thing to do.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who is using illegal obtained information to make life or death decisions

These NPCs are simply character models matched with random descriptors, but even that tiny not to humanize the people that fill the city goes a long way. There is nothing "real" at stake when you play the game, outside of a reputation bar that moves up and down. After a short time, however, it begins to feel like a psychological experiment: Give someone a few unsavory details about the life of a stranger, tell them that someone they're following is going to do something awful, and see how quickly they're tempted, or willing, to act first.

The next time I played one of these vigilante missions I didn’t hesitate, I simply put a bullet through the face of the criminal the moment I had a solid ID. My reputation may have gone down a little bit, but the potential victim was safe, and the act was mechanically easier than waiting until they were at risk. There is no chance for the man to "come back another day." I looked at the data, and decided the best course of action was to remove all those potential days. It felt safe. It felt easy.

It was comforting.

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