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date: 22 February 2018

Security and Surveillance in Film

Summary and Keywords

Security and surveillance have featured heavily in film over the years. Their depiction has provided a platform for debate about appropriate levels of surveillance and has provided tangible illustrations of surveillance theory. Films have addressed the development of surveillance technology and the practice of monitoring citizens in the name of national security, portraying surveillance as both a necessary tool and at times a threat to liberty. The use of surveillance technology has been a controversial practice, often debated as an issue of civil liberty and potentially an invasion of privacy. How much surveillance is too much or too little is often debated in relation to serious threats to society, such as terrorist attacks and organized crime. In addressing these issues, films often illustrate surveillance theory in practice, providing useful insight into the benefits and drawbacks of particular theoretical perspectives on the use of surveillance. Concepts like social control, discipline/punishment of people who break the law, and convincing people to follow the rules are often inherent in the storylines of films on surveillance.

A key idea in the study of surveillance is the concept of a panopticon. Originally, a panopticon was an architectural design for a prison that placed a guard in a well at the center of a prison, with inmates arranged around them. The guard could observe the prisoners at all times and the prisoners lived with a sense that they were constantly under surveillance. The design aimed to improve the security and efficiency of the prison. In the 1970s, Foucault applied the concept of a panopticon to society as a whole, arguing that the state acts as the prison guard and the public are the prisoners who are controlled by the belief that they are under constant surveillance. This idea has been influential in the study of surveillance, and the image of a central protagonist who monitors others with and without their awareness appears in several films from the 1970s onward. The film adaptation of 1984 often serves as an example of the threat of surveillance by the state. Equally, films like The Conversation and Enemy of the State have commented on the threat of covert acts of surveillance by small elites.

Keywords: security, surveillance, film, panoticism, synoptisism, Uberveillance

The Importance of Surveillance in Society

In criminology, the role of surveillance in national security and crime control is a significant area of discussion and debate, due to the sometimes contentious rationales used to justify its use and the diverse methods of surveillance that have developed over the years. How much power the state should have to monitor its citizens, the effect the monitoring has on people’s everyday lives, and the use of surveillance in efforts to control crime have been popular topics for examination in film.

Theoretical Introduction to Surveillance

Underpinning the study of surveillance is a theoretical discussion of discipline and social control in society. The works of Bentham (1789) and Foucault (1980) on the idea of a panopticon have been influential in the study of surveillance. A panopticon, according to Bentham, is an architectural design for a circular prison in which guards are placed at the center so that they are able to observe all inmates. The inmates believe they are under constant scrutiny by the guards and consequently adhere to prison rules. The design was hailed as "a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example” (Bentham, 1789).

Foucault argued that, just as a panopticon can be used in a prison, it can also be used through surveillance technology to control the general public. In Foucault’s work, the panopticon is a means for the few in power to watch the many within society and to exert social control over their behavior. According to Mathiesen (1997), while the panopticon model of surveillance was being developed, a parallel (and at times interconnected) expansion of news and entertainment media was taking place. Synopticon is the idea that, through mass media, the majority of society can observe and monitor the actions of a select few. This phenomenon, according to Mathiesen (1997), took place at the same time as the development of the panopticon approach to the use of surveillance and in part shares a common heritage. Technological development of cameras, for instance, allowed for the development of both surveillance cameras and television. In the development of telecommunications, there have been similar parallel developments in panoptic and synoptic observation. Mathiesen (1997) further argued that the development of mass media can be seen as a series of waves. The first wave was the development in the 18th and 19th centuries of newspapers and their increased circulation, which resulted in better communication of current events. The second wave was the development of film, followed by radio and television. The new technology and changes in society that facilitated the increased use of surveillance at this time also made the film industry possible. Mathiesen argued that Foucault failed to acknowledge that while panopticons were developing within society (the few watching the many), there was an equally important emergence of synopticism as well (the many watching the few).

In our century, panopticism and synopticism have developed on the basis of a joint technology. The telegraph and the radio have, as I have already mentioned, been methods on both sides. In our own time, television, video, satellites, cables and modern computer development are joint technological features. In his book 1984 George Orwell described panopticism and synopticism in their ultimate form as completely merged: through a screen in your living room you saw Big Brother, just as Big Brother saw you.

(Mathiesen, 1997, p. 223)

Cinema’s Commentary on Surveillance

If one adopts Mathiesen’s view that film represents the second wave of synoptic development, it can be argued that film has allowed society an opportunity to observe fictional and factual accounts of the use of surveillance for over 100 years. In that time, films that have commented on surveillance and its use have been influential in highlighting the perils and benefits to society of relying on surveillance technology. Rising concern over national security and the risks posed by terrorism have been used in film as the basis for many of the narratives on surveillance. The depiction in films of what is achievable through surveillance can at times be misleading or sensationalized, which in turn can influence the public’s perceptions of surveillance and the threat of crime, which in their turn can influence opinion on the necessity for surveillance and the limits placed on its use. Both Marx (2009) and Kammerer (2012) noted that depictions of surveillance in popular culture are pivotal in informing the general public about how surveillance works. Consequently, surveillance cinema has become a prominent area of research.

The Study of Surveillance Cinema

The relationship between surveillance and cinema has been critically examined in recent years by academics, such as Kammerer (2004, 2012) and Zimmer (2015), who have reflected on the relationship between the two phenomena. The study of surveillance cinema has often highlighted a cinematic preoccupation with the act of observing (and the associated justifications) and the presentation of surveillance systems and technology. Turner (1998) argued that cinema reduces surveillance to the spectacle of voyeuristic observation and glosses over the anxieties associated with being under surveillance: “Films that feature surveillance as a vehicle for spectacle, suspense, and violence demonstrate how we are no longer affected or unsettled by the video gaze or bodily intrusion. They have become ordinary images” (Turner, 1998, p. 121).

According to Kammerer (2012), most films that rely on surveillance are a combination of a story dealing with advanced surveillance technology, a significant event, and the film’s protagonists’ questioning of, and reflection on, the psychological and ethical implications of surveillance. Zimmer (2015) also argued that, in the study of cinema, the theme of surveillance is often condensed into a discussion of either psychoanalytic accounts of voyeuristic pleasure or a representation of the panoptic model of surveillance, and consequently cinema’s discussion of surveillance has the potential to be superficial or preoccupied with the actors involved and the methods used.

Stewart (2012) argued that “surveillance cinema” can be seen as a detective genre that has evolved due to a renewed interest in the threat of espionage and the use of spy craft. Anxiety over national security and the threat of terrorism in the 21st century has increased interest in cinematic depictions of espionage and the policing of terrorism. Stewart observed that, “In a Hollywood genre cycle more than a decade old now, at least since the pre-9/11 Enemy of the State (Tony Scott, 1998), and proliferating both as POV technique and overt theme, the drama of recon, surveillance, and remote targeting—translated from desert combat to paramilitary CIA complots—is what the new protagonist must defeat, but only by beating it at its own game” (Stewart, 2012, p. 5).

Zimmer (2015) argued that events like the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the U.S. National Security Agency’s use of “dataveillance” to monitor people globally have influenced our understanding of what surveillance is. So, despite the argument that surveillance in cinema is often refined or reduced to the level of technology and the ethics of using surveillance, Zimmer (2015) argued that the combination of surveillance technology and ideology depicted in cinema plays an important cultural and political role in the developing debate over the use of surveillance.

Zimmer (2015) also argued that the use of surveillance in film has increased in recent years as the appeal of this theme in narrative cinema has grown. She cites a range of different cinematic genres and films that have utilized surveillance as a theme to demonstrate the interconnected nature of the two phenomena. Muir (2012) went further and argued that the relationship between surveillance and cinema is complex and multifaceted: “The relationship between cinema and surveillance can be characterized as being complex, complementary and complicitous; mutually informative at the level of technological development and production process, as well as in thematic concerns.”

Zimmer (2011) noted, citing the work of Gunning (1995), how surveillance and the act of observing wrongdoing were elements of cinema even before they were effective forms of crime detection and prevention. Turner (1998) argued that the medium of cinema is by its very nature “hypersurveillant,” acknowledging no boundaries to its gaze: “The uninterrupted scopic drive of the motion picture camera as a recording instrument collapses all public/private distinctions, peering into the interior lives and spaces of its subjects.” This suggests that, rather than cinema’s capitalizing on the pre-existing phenomenon of surveillance, the use of surveillance in a criminal justice context is influenced by its use in drama. “The camera recording the very act of malefaction appears in drama, literature, and early film before it was really an important process of criminal detection” (Gunning, 1995, cited in Zimmer, 2011).

While it may be argued that, in film, surveillance is refined or reduced into a simplified discussion of voyeurism and the development of technology, it can also be argued that film is still responsible in part for informing and educating the public on the potential effect of using surveillance, and cinema informs the public’s perceptions of its benefits and drawbacks. This is particularly relevant to issues of security and crime control. Film’s complex connection to surveillance, in terms of their common use of technology and influence on culture, means it can provide insight into the definitions of, typology of, and reactions to surveillance.

Defining Surveillance

The academic discourse on surveillance not only discusses the monitoring and recording of people but also highlights the changing nature of relationships between the state and its citizenry. The word surveillance is derived from the French surveiller, which broadly translates as “to monitor” or “to watch.” The oldest usage noted is in the “Committee of Surveillance” immediately after the French Revolution (Schneider, 2008).

How to Explain Surveillance

Commentators on surveillance (Lyon, 2002; Schneider, 2008; Wachtel, 1992) have noted that it can be seen as a sinister aspect of the state’s relationship with its citizens, because data on individuals can be scrutinized and examined without their knowledge or consent.

Clarke (2016) highlighted several forms of surveillance and noted that the manner in which surveillance is conducted has changed over time, leading to a change in our understanding of what surveillance is. Haggerty (2006, 2011) argued that Foucault’s panoptic model of surveillance has been changed in a number of ways to accommodate changes in modes of governance, surveillance technology, and the growth of capitalism on a global scale. Muir argued this point in relation to the discussion of space. She noted that the original idea of a panopticon was based on the premise that those observed would be physically isolated and restrained, their discipline and awareness of being monitored taking place within an institution. However, according to Haggerty et al. (2011), in response to cultural changes in society, a shift in the reasons for using surveillance has taken place, moving the rationale from surveillance for Foucauldian notions of discipline to surveillance as a means of control. Social control theories argue that society regulates human behavior through socialization and various forms of external controls (Reckless et al., 1956). It can be argued that surveillance is one of the external controls, because its presence and people’s awareness of it alter people’s reactions and behavior. Muir (2012) discussed the work of Deleuze (1990), who argued that:

We’re in the midst of a general breakdown of all sites of confinement—prisons, hospitals, factories, schools, the family … everyone knows these institutions are in more or less terminal decline. It’s simply a matter of nursing them through their death throes and keeping people busy until the new forces knocking at the door take over. Control societies are taking over from disciplinary societies.

(Deleuze, 1990, cited in Muir, 2012, p. 265).

With the shift from discipline to control, the purpose of surveillance became monitoring and tracking individuals’ identities and what they are entitled to. The modern era of increased use of information technology and stockpiling of personal information has changed the nature of surveillance. Turner noted that “Our computerized, information-saturated society has created a new geography of power relations that have become increasingly dependent on surveillance in order to sustain or move these power bases forward” (Turner, 1998, p. 121).

It is interesting how the different forms and models of surveillance and the rationales for their use (either discipline or social control) are presented in film. These depictions can contribute to the debate on the limits that should be placed on the use of surveillance or the legitimacy of its use.

Physical Surveillance

Physical surveillance refers to the very basic practice of conducting visual and/or audio observation. In film, an example of physical surveillance is given by the activities of “the thin man” in Lang’s Metropolis (1927) as the character watches and follows people in the slave state ruled by the “Master of Metropolis.” In history, the practices of the 17th century night watchmen established by Charles II are an example of early physical surveillance. Given the nickname “Charlies,” the watchmen were often elderly men armed with truncheons and rattles to attract watchmen if a crime was detected (McCouat, 2014). While the men may have been ineffective as a police force, they serve as a good example of the difficulties faced in using physical surveillance. The covert policing undertaken during the era of the French Revolution also illustrates early efforts by a state to conduct surveillance of its citizens. According to Fijnaut and Marx (1995), in 1770, policing in Paris was conducted by 20 inspectuers de police, who all engaged in covert activity and directed a network of observers, spies, and informers. Through covert policing, the authorities sought to maintain order and gain intelligence on threats to the state:

The police—in contrast with the administration—should make its influence felt without showing itself. The police must always be alert and take action—but surreptitiously. Fouche saw the police as a ministry for action (ministere d’action)—a secret but powerful driving force which was the indispensable arm of government. (Fouche translated and cited in

Fijnaut & Marx, 1995, p. 4)

Minister of Police Joseph Fouche, a key figure in the postrevolutionary government and head of the police, was one of the early proponents of using a “secret” police force; however, the practice was popular throughout Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. The exploits of Eugene Vidocq, criminal turned spy turned investigator, are a prime example of early covert policing (Emsley, 1999). A series of black-and-white short films have been produced on the life of Vidocq, beginning in 1909 with La Jeunesse de Vidocq ou Comment on devient policier (Launay & Mario, 1909), then L’Évasion de Vidocq (Denola, 1910), and Vidocq (Bourgeois, 1911). Subsequent films and a television series have highlighted different aspects of his life and career as both a criminal and an investigator.

The use of undercover police officers was characterized by Marx (1988) as active surveillance.

Unobtrusive surveillance does not directly intervene to shape the suspect's environment, perceptions, or behavior. … Undercover work is both covert and deceptive. … Unlike conventional police work, … the investigation may go on before and during the commission of the offence. It may start with the offender and only later document the offence. Discovery of the offender, the offence, and arrest may occur almost simultaneously.

(Marx, 1988, p. 12)

In the 20th century, undercover police officers who embedded themselves in the population under scrutiny became controversial and popular characters in film. Numerous films depicted this form of covert observation, often taking the perspective of the undercover police officer. The 1997 film Donnie Brasco (Newell, 1997) is a good example.

Covert policing relies on an individual’s senses and ability to interpret human behavior. Before the latter half of the 20th century, surveillance in this context was an expensive and time-consuming activity with limits on its use. In the latter half of the 20th century, developments in technology allowed for easier recording and documentation of human behavior.


The panoptic prison system proposed by Bentham (1789) is an example of physical surveillance. According to Lyon (2002), studies of surveillance often draw on the works of Bentham (1789) and Foucault (1980) and the concept of a panopticon. Originally conceived as a design for a prison, the panopticon places the observer at the center of a structure where they are able to observe all inmates and constantly monitor their activity. Bentham argued that the prisoners’ belief that they were under constant surveillance would make the prisoners regulate their own behavior without the need for harsh treatment by the guards. “People under surveillance are—as in the Panopticon—to be seen but to never know when or by whom; under control but without physical intervention” (Koskela, 2003).

Bentham held that his prison design would make it possible to engage in the practice of “grinding rogues honest” (Bentham, 1789). Bentham’s designs were influential in the 19th century and several prisons built at this time are still in use today. (For example, Pentonville prison in London, which opened in 1842, used the radial design proposed by Bentham and operated using isolation of inmates and panoptic surveillance.) In addition to Bentham’s own panoptic prisons built in the 19th century, several later prisons were designed along similar panoptic principles, such as Koepelgevangenis prison in Arnhem, Netherlands (Koolhaas & Demartino, 1981).

The film Escape Plan (Hafstrom, 2013) presents a modern version of a panopticon. Ray Breslin, the hero of the film, is employed to test the security in maximum-security prisons by becoming an inmate and attempting to escape. In the film, he is sent to a prison that claims to be the most secure prison, able to hold the worst offenders. The design of the prison shows many characteristics of a panopticon. Prisoners are under constant surveillance, caged in transparent cells with their every movement monitored. Despite this, Ray Breslin and his compatriot Emil Rottmayer are able to find time and space to be unobserved, using the prison’s solitary confinement cells to plan their escape. In the film, the prison’s warden, Hobbes, represents a harsh and cruel jailer exhibiting little of the restraint in physical punishment Bentham had proposed in his design. In this sense, the film portrays a more sensationalized view of what life in a panoptic prison would be like.

While the harsh conditions in the prison in Escape Plan may run counter to Bentham’s principles, the characters’ response to life in the prison adheres to Lyon’s (2002) observation on people’s responses to harsh panoptic regimes. Lyon noted that, the more rigorous the panoptic regime, the greater the active resistance to it.

Bentham’s aim in building a panoptic prison was to improve the living conditions for prisoners and the deterrent effect of prison. Foucault, however, envisioned panopticism as a pattern present within society as a whole. Foucault argued that, in the panopticon, visibility was a trap that both prison inmates and the public were caught in.

There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorizing to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against, himself. A superb formula: power exercised continuously and for what turns out to be a minimal cost.

(Foucault, 1980, p.155)

Norris et al. (1998) and Fox (2001), in their studies of surveillance, argued that there are several parallels between the experiences of inmates in a panoptic prison and the public’s experience of surveillance systems. Foucault (1977) discussed the use of panoptic surveillance in cities, arguing that, much like in a prison, the set-up of surveillance in cities creates a similar trap of visibility that, in turn, leads to the regulation of people’s behavior without the need for direct physical intervention by the state. Lyon (2002) argued that the appeal of the panopticon as a concept in the study of surveillance is still present in modern discourse, but there are criticisms of the theory and its use. Several theorists have noted the limitations of relying on this concept and the aspects of surveillance.

The Appeal of Physical Surveillance in Film

Films in which physical surveillance is present offer some interesting insights into the role of people in surveillance systems. In the context of physical surveillance, films like Donnie Brasco (Newell, 1997) demonstrate the emotional and physical difficulties associated with conducting surveillance up close. The film examines the emotional turmoil and intellectual challenge Brasco experiences undercover, as he devises a way to gain access to his targets and begins to form bonds with the people he is surveilling. While the subject matter and approach taken in Escape Plan (Hafstrom, 2013) are radically different from those of Donnie Brasco, this film also emphasized the battle of wills between Warden Hobbes and Ray Breslin, rather than the technology used to create the prison. In this way, both films engage in the practice of reducing surveillance to a discussion of psychoanalytic accounts and a representation of the panoptic model of surveillance discussed by Zimmer (2015).

Physical Surveillance at a Distance

With the development of technology that improves the monitors’ ability to see and hear, it became possible to conduct physical surveillance at a distance, monitoring people from afar.

The use of technologically assisted physical surveillance by police forces in the United States was a controversial development in the late 1990s. Slobogin (1997) highlighted how the end of the Cold War and developments in surveillance technology at that time introduced a range of new surveillance technologies into the criminal justice system. In an analysis conducted for the American Bar Association, Slobogin noted that in 1997 there was minimal legal regulation and control of the use of technologically assisted physical surveillance.

Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation centered on a surveillance expert, Harry Caul, and his recording, using directional microphones, of a conversation between a man and a woman in a park. An expert in surveillance, Harry becomes preoccupied with trying to understand the recordings he makes of the couples’ conversation. Similarly, physical surveillance at a distance was depicted in the 1983 film Blue Thunder (Badham, 1983): in one scene, the surveillance systems mounted in the Blue Thunder helicopter allow the main characters to hover outside a hotel room undetected and to record a meeting held by the film’s villains. In both films, the legality of the surveillance is not questioned or explored. Neither film portrays the use of surveillance as an invasion of privacy. In contrast, the 1998 film The Truman Show (Weir, 1998) portrays the use of physical surveillance at a distance as a harmful activity. In the film, the protagonist, Truman, has spent his entire life monitored by hidden cameras and microphones until he decides to break free from the constant surveillance.

The use of covert physical surveillance at a distance surveillance has been problematic throughout the 21st century, with debates about whether it represents an unacceptable invasion of privacy. Slobogin argued that a fundamental problem is the ongoing development of surveillance technology and the inability of legislators to keep up.

One objection to any project to develop rules governing technologically assisted physical surveillance relies on the constant evolution of technology. Any effort at regulation, a few Task Force members initially argued, will soon be rendered obsolete by new developments in the field. Just as current detection devices were unimaginable thirty years ago, new devices that we cannot anticipate and therefore cannot intelligently regulate will be developed. A subsequent development in surveillance has been the creation of technology designed to be attached to the individual(s) under surveillance.

(Slobogin, 1997)

Because he was writing in 1997, Slobogin discussed the issue in advance of several innovations in surveillance technology that have since been introduced. It can be argued that developments in communication technology (e.g., the advent of cell phones and the Internet) have been the most significant factor in altering the nature of surveillance and the ability to monitor people’s behavior.

The Appeal of Physical Surveillance at a Distance in Film

Using physical surveillance at a distance is a popular motif in film because it combines the act of observing people with technology, which creates distance between the observer and the observed. The distance can be used to make the audience complicit with the observer and create drama through the shared secrecy of monitoring someone. Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation is an important example because it demonstrates how technology can allow people access to others at a time when they might expect privacy. Because the observers do not need or have physical proximity to the target of observation, they are protected from scrutiny. This distance can also be used in films to show characters’ questioning of the ethics of using surveillance. In The Conversation, Harry Caul’s discomfort over surveilling a couple without their knowledge is his motivation throughout the film. The audience accompanies Harry in his preoccupation with working out what the snippets of conversation he overhears actually mean. The Truman Show (Weir, 1998), in its use of cameras and an artificial environment to create a television show centered on Truman’s life, also provides a commentary on the relationship between observers and observed. The film suggests that, although the television audience and the show’s creator maintained their distance, Truman could still sense their observation. In this film, the audience is given the perspective of both the observer and the observed. The film is a good illustration of Mathiesen’s synopticon at work, as the world watches the life of one man from his birth to his eventual escape.

Ubiquitous Surveillance and Uberveillance

Michael and Michael argued that we have entered an age of Uberveillance. They pointed to the developing research in the area of implanted technology: “Omnipresent 24/7 surveillance where the explicit concerns for misinformation, misinterpretation, and information manipulation are ever more multiplied and where potentially the technology is embedded into our body” (Michael & Michael, 2006). Thus, Uberveillance is defined by Michael and Michael (2008) as omnipresent surveillance of human bodies via implantable technology. According to Michael and Michael (2008) and Clarke (2016), the development of location-based service (LBS) applications for humancentric tracking and monitoring means there is an increasing capacity to monitor the activities of individuals at a distance. This technology includes radiofrequency identifier (RFID) chips and wearable technology with built-in GPS.

In their 2008 paper, Michael and Michael explored the socio-ethical implications of LBS for various aspects of society. They noted that the technology has a range of uses, including the tracking of people during rescue operations, parents tracking their children, and health care providers monitoring patients. They argued that humancentric tracking is the voluntary use of LBS technology, while monitoring is the discreet and constant examination of an individual’s movements. In both instances, it is notable that the barriers to constant observation have ceased to exist and the only limits to surveillance are social, rather than technological. Michael et al. (2010) noted several instances where widespread monitoring through RFID chips had already begun, such as the monitoring of drivers’ activity by insurance companies. They noted that, in the future, more scrutiny of individuals will be possible: “It will not be too far out before implantable solutions for humans based on RFID make it possible to monitor real-time blood alcohol levels, heart rates, temperature, and other physiological characteristics—the patents were filed in some cases two decades ago” (Michael et al., 2010).


Lyon (2002) examined how, in the late 20th century, societies also became less reliant on face-to-face communication and interaction. Through various advances in communication technology, it has become possible to interact and to form bonds between individuals and organizations at a distance. Digital forms of identification, electronic methods of completing transactions, and digital communication with others all increase the potential for anonymity within society, which has had a profound effect on our understanding of surveillance and the information infrastructure upon which surveillance systems are based. In 1965, Gordon Moore noted that every year since the invention of the integrated circuit board, the number of transistors per square inch that could be fitted onto a board had doubled (Schaller, 1997). Moore argued that this trend would continue into the future, and his concept is known as Moore’s law. In time, the pace of development slowed, so that, on average, data storage capacity has doubled every 18 months. The importance of this with regard to surveillance is that, over time, the ability to store information has increased significantly. As noted by Schneier (2013), both the public and private sectors gather and analyze personal biographical information gathered from the public.

Films that have commented on the development of the “information society” have reflected on the level of technological advancement and the degree to which information could be accessed and exploited. In The Net (Winkler, 1995), the protagonist Angela Bennett is victimized by a group of cyberterrorists, called the “Praetorians,” who use access to personal data via the Internet to pursue her and change her identity. The film explores how Angela lives a solitary life, working from home, with her only friends being on the Internet. When the Praetorians corrupt her personal data by changing her name and giving her a criminal record, she is forced to find a way to restore her good name. The film draws on the emerging issue of identity theft in America during the 1990s, with notable cases of individuals’ being prosecuted for crimes committed by people who had stolen their identities. An example of this is the experience of Michelle Brown during the 1990s; her victimization by an identity thief led to the creation of the Identity theft and assumption deterrence act (1998). Similar threats posed by American society’s reliance on the Internet and the storage of growing amounts of data are also examined in the films Enemy of the State (Scott, 1998), Antitrust (Howitt, 2001), and Eagle Eye (Caruso, 2007). In each of these films, the protagonist’s life is threatened by the manipulation and control of personal data. The degree of manipulation varies, but in each film the threat of false data’s being introduced and the reach of surveillance through personal data are demonstrated.

Concern about Uberveillance and the use of dataveillance is addressed in the documentary Citizenfour (Poitras, 2014), which examines the life and experiences of Edward Snowden. Snowden gained significant media attention and notoriety after leaking secret files on the U.S. National Security Agency’s global surveillance programs and intelligence files from other nation’s security services. As noted by Zimmer (2011, 2015), the threat and power of the National Security Agency’s use of Uberveillance are difficult to examine in detail in film because depiction of surveillance in film is often simplified. Consequently, the risks posed by the latest developments in surveillance technology do not receive much attention, although developments in surveillance often form the basis of science fiction films, such as Minority Report (Spielberg, 2002) and Eagle Eye (Caruso, 2008).

Ubiquitous Surveillance and Uberveillance in Film

In films that portray ubiquitous surveillance or Uberveillance, the power of this form of surveillance is often emphasized. As noted, in the film The Truman Show (Weir, 1998), the main character, Truman, experienced constant monitoring and documentation of his life. The monitoring was achieved through the creation of an artificial environment where the show’s creators controlled every aspect of Truman’s life. Ultimately, Truman rebels against the system. In contrast, the film Minority Report (Speilberg, 2002) offers a view of a society where the trust placed in surveillance is so absolute that pre-emptive policing is possible and encouraged. In both films, the central message is that, while constant surveillance is possible, it does not guarantee success. Truman is offered everything it is presumed he would want, but the system is unable to accurately identify his needs and wants. Similarly, in Minority Report, while the system identifies the main character John Anderton as a killer, it misses details that demonstrate that he was manipulated.

The victimization of characters by systems that exploit personal data or that place people under constant surveillance is a popular theme. Emphasizing the dangers of dataveillance, films like Enemy of the State (Scott, 1998) and Antitrust (Howitt, 2001) play on the idea that our trust in surveillance is so absolute that people will believe false information if it is provided by those conducting the surveillance. Enemy of the State (Scott, 1998) is noteworthy in this regard. In the film, corrupt government officials provide false evidence on the main character in an effort to discredit him, and because they are in a position of authority and have access to data on him, the main character is forced to flee the police. Because of when it was made, Enemy of the State (Scott, 1998) is somewhat dated in its representation of surveillance and its use, and the film does not offer a commentary on the increased concern about national security or the expansion of powers that has arisen since the 9/11 attacks and the implementation of the Patriot Act. More recent biographies of Edward Snowden—Snowden (Stone, 2016) and Julien Assange: The Fifth Estate (Condon, 2013)—have, however, provided some commentary on the impact of global surveillance networks and the role surveillance plays in society.

Resistance to Surveillance

Experiences of Those Conducting Surveillance

In some films, surveillance operatives are the protagonists and in several notable examples they are portrayed as people most fearful or suspicious of its use. Films like The Conversation (Coppola, 1974), Enemy of the State (Scott, 1998), Eye of the Beholder (Elliott, 1999), and The Lives of Others (von Donnersmarck, 2006) demonstrate the work involved in conducting surveillance and the lengths to which people’s private lives can be observed.

In The Conversation (Coppola, 1974), the protagonist Harry (played by Gene Hackman), a surveillance expert, takes care not to divulge information about himself, maintaining as nondescript a life as is possible, because he knows what he and others like him are able to glean about people and their lives. The end of the film shows Harry dismantling his own apartment in an attempt to find an elusive audio recording device. Gene Hackman’s character in Enemy of the State similarly fears what personal information can be learned through surveillance, living his life in a specially constructed Faraday cage to avoid detection.

The characters Gerd Wiesler (played by Ulrich Mühe) in The Lives of Others (von Donnersmarck, 2006) and Stephen Wilson (played by Ewan McGregor) in Eye of the Beholder (Elliott, 1999) both become obsessed with the people they are conducting surveillance on, building in their own minds relationships with the people they are observing. This process is seen also in the films Stakeout (Badham, 1987) and the sequel Another Stakeout (Badham, 1993); the central premise of both films is the breaking of social barriers between the observer and the observed, with the process ultimately leading to the formation of personal relationships. Similarly, films like Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954), Fright Night (Holland, 1985), and Disturbia (Caruso, 2007) depict private citizens engaging in surveillance of their neighbors, who they believe are involved in criminal activity, and their increasing investment in the lives of the people they observe. In each of the films, what is noteworthy is the breakdown of the observer’s objectivity, leading to an inability to detach themselves emotionally from the people they conduct surveillance on.

The Limits of a Surveillance Society

What limitations can or should be placed on the use of surveillance is an area of intensive debate. As technology has advanced and the ability to monitor people has changed, so, too, has the question of what information the state and private companies should have on people. U.K. Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has noted on several occasions his concern that the United Kingdom is becoming a surveillance society wherethe state collects too much information on citizens (House of Lords, 2009).

In 2004, Barry Steinhardt the director of the Technology and Liberty Program at the American Civil Liberties Union, went before the Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. He presented his organization’s views on the use of radiofrequency identifiers (RFIDs). Steinhardt testified to the committee on the risks RFID tags and advances in surveillance technology pose to people’s privacy:

The explosion of computers, cameras, sensors, wireless communication, GPS, biometrics, and other technologies in just the last 10 years is feeding what can be described as a surveillance monster that is growing silently in our midst. Scarcely a month goes by in which we don’t read about some new high-tech method for invading privacy, from face recognition to implantable microchips, data-mining to DNA chips, and now RFID identity tags. The fact is, there are no longer any technical barriers to the creation of a surveillance society.

(Steinhardt, 2004, p. 1)

In the remainder of Steinhardt’s statement, he discussed how important it is, in an age where a surveillance society is technically possible, that there be social constraints to protect privacy. Since Steinhardt’s statement in 2004, surveillance technology has developed even further. RFID chips can now be implanted in a person’s body, and biometric security is becoming a common method of confirming identity. While it is debatable whether or not we now live in a surveillance society, it is fair to say we live in an age where the potential to use surveillance is great. The 21st century can be seen as an age of surveillance in which it is technically possible to track people and monitor them 24/7. In 2007, Privacy International produced a world map to illustrate how much surveillance people were under around the world in 2006. According to the map, the United States, United Kingdom, Russia, and China were at “endemic” levels (Privacy International, 2007).

In film, the debate about the use of surveillance is often intertwined with a critique of totalitarian regimes or oppression by the state. In a stark view of a dystopian future, the book and subsequent film versions of George Orwell’s 1984 (Radford, 1984) offer a critique of surveillance and oppression by the state. In contrast, the film Gattaca (Niccol, 1997) discusses a future where genetic purity determines access to professions and social status. In this view of a future society, there is no overt oppression by the state but there is an acknowledged discrimination based on genetics. The film discusses whether genetic predisposition should be the overriding determinant of a person’s potential and suitability.

Gattaca’s protagonist, Vincent Freeman, is denied a career as an astronaut because of his genetics, while his younger brother is entitled to follow the career he wants. In order to overcome the system that monitors a person’s genetics, Freeman hires genetically engineered Jerome Eugene Morrow to provide him with hair, skin, blood, and urine samples he can use to fool the monitors. What is notable about Gattaca is its depiction of a society where surveillance is pervasive and complex but is overcome by the determination of one person. Films like Sneakers (Robinson, 1992) and the 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven (Soderbergh, 2001) and its sequels present surveillance technology as something that can be overcome through guile and deception. In both films, the protagonists manipulate the operators of surveillance systems and marry this ability with knowledge of surveillance technology.

Living Off the Grid

In some films on surveillance, there is an anti-surveillance message at the core that also suggests that there are limits to what those engaged in surveillance can observe. These narratives can take the form of characters who refuse to allow their behavior to be altered by the presence of surveillance or characters who actively seek to avoid detection in various ways. In real life, Charrett (1999) provided detailed advice on how to avoid being detected by modern surveillance methods and how to defend individual privacy. Charrett (1999) claimed that the American government is intentionally invading people’s privacy. He asserted that people should become “privacy seekers,” individuals who put in place strategies for defending themselves against what he characterizes as excessive state monitoring and control. The perspective on surveillance highlighted in Charrett’s work is one where the vast amount of public and private data gathered on individuals is a resource that can be manipulated by ordinary citizens. Charrett described his book as a training manual for privacy seekers:

As a privacy seeker, you will learn new tricks and new ways of thinking to help keep Big Government and Corporate America out of your personal affairs. Freedom fighters will learn the best techniques for turning the Bureaucratic Machine against itself and making the most out of life in a civilised society.

(Charrett, 1999, p. 3)

In contrast to Charrett’s emphasis on avoiding surveillance, in spy films, the practice of evading surveillance is portrayed as a specialized skill or ability reserved for highly trained covert operatives. The series of Bourne films—The Bourne Identity (Liman, 2002), Bourne Supremacy (Greengrass, 2004), Bourne Ultimatum (Greengrass, 2007), Bourne Legacy (Greengrass, 2012), and Jason Bourne (Liman, 2016)—portray the practice of evading surveillance and the difficulty it entails.

Evidence Offered by Surveillance

“Big brother is watching you” (Orwell, 1984) is commonly quoted in referring to surveillance by the state. Films that have examined the nature of surveillance in relation to national security or the issue of terrorism provide a different perspective on its use. Films like The Conversation (Coppola, 1974) and Enemy of the State (Scott, 1998) depict surveillance as a pivotal tool in ensuring national security. In films like Rendition (Hood, 2007) and Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, 2012), security services and intelligence-gathering operations are shown to rely on surveillance, and the films depict both the impact of surveillance and monitoring and the necessity for their use.

The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe (Robert, 1972) and its American remake, The Man with One Red Shoe (Dragoti, 1985), take a comical approach to the use of surveillance by security services. In The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe, infighting between the chief and deputy of France’s counter-espionage department leads to violinist Francois Perrin’s being randomly selected and misidentified as part of a covert operation. The film centers on the unsuspecting Perrin’s being sent on various misadventures as members of the counter-espionage department conduct surveillance on him for activities he has no knowledge of. Similarly, in the American remake by Dragoti (1985), two feuding CIA directors’ efforts to politically outmanoeuvre each other lead to the protagonist, Richard Drew (played by Tom Hanks), being monitored by a team of spies all wrongly convinced he is engaged in espionage. While made for comedic effect, these films highlight the dangers of false-positives in surveillance. The film Rendition (Hood, 2007) takes a more dramatic approach to the issue of people’s being mistakenly identified as terrorists. The story follows the efforts of Douglas Freeman (played by Jake Gyllenhal) to ascertain if Anwar El-Ibrahimi (played by Omar Metwally) was involved in a terrorist attack. As El-Ibrahimi is on his way home to Chicago from a conference in South Africa, he is taken by the CIA and is transported to an unnamed North African country through the use of extreme rendition. Freeman is called in to monitor the interrogation of El-Ibrahimi and the torture he is subjected to. Over time, Freeman begins to doubt El-Ibrahimi’s guilt as well as to doubt the surveillance evidence that links him to the terrorist attack. The film explores both the use of the “ticking bomb scenario” (Dershowitz, 2003) as a rationale for the use of torture and the reliance on surveillance to provide evidence of terrorist activity.

The Growth of Panopticons and Synopticons

Over the last 200 years, the increase in Synopticism through various media (including cinema) has provided an important standpoint to examine the use of panoptic surveillance. Many films use the concept of surveillance in their narratives and point to the controversial issues related to its use. As noted by several commentators (Clarke, 2016, Lyon, 2002, Michael & Michael, 2006), surveillance has reached a point where tracking and monitoring have become so remote and discreet that it is possible to monitor people 24 hours a day with minimal signs of their use. While this development has led to political debate and concern about the creation of a surveillance society, in film, surveillance remains merely a tool for developing stories and providing context for drama. Lyon (2007) argued that films do not always portray an accurate picture of the limits and value of surveillance: “Surveillance is a mere backdrop to a dramatic story about personal issues of the protagonists and it can be contested whether [the films] are ‘about’ surveillance at all” (Lyon, 2007, cited in Kammerer, 2012, p. 103).

Despite these limitations, films do provide the public with insight into the power of surveillance systems and their use by the state and private organizations. For example, science fiction films that depict the future applications of surveillance also help to illustrate the potential directions society may take and the threat posed by the unregulated or unmonitored use of surveillance. Films like 1984 (Radford, 1984) and Orwell’s notorious line “Big brother is watching you” (Orwell, 1984) are still cited in political debates about the use of surveillance and the power of the state.

Further Reading

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