TIME cybersecurity

Surveillance in the Movies: Fact vs. Fiction

Experts at a hacker conference answer the question every spy-movie watcher has asked: “Can they really do that?”

For those of us who don’t work at a spy agency, the “intel” we’ve gathered on what state surveillance is like comes primarily from movies and TV shows. But just how realistic are those portrayals? A panel of experts at Defcon, one of the world’s top hacker conferences taking place in Las Vegas over the weekend, had some answers.

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

“You’re collecting all this hay. How many needles are you finding in the hay?” says Kevin Bankston, policy director for the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, describing the practice of bulk collection. The answer? Not many. Bulk collection has led to “one case where they convicted a cabdriver in San Diego for donating less than $10,000 to a Somali terror group,” Bankston said. “So the question is: Is it worth collecting all of our phone records for that conviction?”

When it comes specifically to this Simpsons clip, Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union, says there have indeed been cases of “local surveillance being rolled out in the buses.”

The Bourne Supremacy (2004)

No clip available online, but, to summarize: high-tech devices listening in on conversations around the world pick up on a single phrase — “blackbriar” — that tips off the government.

“As a civil libertarian, this movie was like cinematic crack to me,” Bankston said. With the quantity of data the NSA intercepts and the data-mining abilities of modern computers, picking out a keyword from a random conversation overheard by a surveillance program is not far fetched, he said. “This is not fiction.”

Brazil (1985)

The scene above depicts government agents discussing the use of surveillance tools to eavesdrop on a love interest.

“This brings me back to my days inside the belly of the beast,” says Timothy Edgar, who from 2006 to 2009 served as the first deputy for civil liberties in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “It’s a very realistic depiction of the kinds of compliance issues we had to address,” he said, though in reality “the technology was only slightly more obsolete.” According to Edgar, a review of NSA practices by the agency’s inspector general found that over a 10-year period there were 12 instances of intentional misuse of NSA surveillance, all relating to love interests.

The Dark Knight (2008)

A program that uses the microphones in the cell phones to create a sonar map of the city is mostly, but not entirely, insane.

“It’s a great mixture of actual plausible technology and really stupid technology,” Bankston said. Law-enforcement and intelligence agencies routinely take control of cell phones by remote in order to turn on microphones and cameras to spy on targets, but doing so with every phone in town at once would probably overwhelm the network. Bankston adds that if 30 million citizens of Gotham brought a class-action lawsuit against Bruce Wayne for this violation of the Wiretap Act, he’d be on the hook, per damages prescribed in the law, for $300 billion.

The Company You Keep (2012)

“This is a pretty straightforward depiction of cell-phone tracking,” Bankston said, which is “routinely done by local law enforcement, as well as the Feds, as well as the intelligence community.”

Minority Report (2002)

This kind of government search — thermal imaging followed by spider robots scurrying through a building and terrifying its inhabitants — is clearly unconstitutional, not to mention creepy. What’s interesting, Edgar notes, is the question of why it’s creepy.

“Is it the fact that they could find Tom Cruise by extracting this data from people in the apartment or the fact that they did it in a creepy way?” he said. (I.e., with bots that look like insects many find terrifying in their own right.) “What if we could just extract the data from the Internet of things that [were] already in your house?” With our homes becoming smarter and more wired, it’s easy to see how timely that question is.

Enemy of the State (1998)

In this scene, the head of the NSA tries to persuade a Congressman not to stop a bill that would give the agency broad new surveillance powers. The Congressman makes the argument — which we hear echoed today by firms like Google and Facebook — that the surveillance state doesn’t just invade privacy, but is bad for business at companies that depend on the trust of clients, including people outside the U.S.

Bankston noted that in the film, (spoiler alert) the NSA goes on to assassinate the Congressman. Edgar pointed out that any such assassination attempt would clearly step on Central Intelligence Agency toes.

“They would object very strongly to the NSA’s doing that,” he said.

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