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Watching Them Watching Us: Surveillance on TV


OUR HERO leans into his computer screen, reviewing surveillance footage. THE BAD GUY appears, and OUR HERO freezes and zooms.

Widespread surveillance is becoming increasingly ubiquitous, particularly in the United Kingdom, where it is impossible to go more than a few steps in an urban area without being seen by a camera. In addition to a massive network of state-owned cameras used to monitor citizens, there’s a vast ‘dark network’ of cameras maintained by private entities, all of which can be used to piece together a story by following people from shot to shot.

The potential abuses of surveillance are significant, and real-life test cases from both private companies and government agencies are demonstrating the dangers of a ubiquitous surveillance culture. In 2009, for example, a woman lost her insurance coverage because she posted happy pictures of herself on Facebook, used as evidence by her insurance company that she wasn’t really depressed. Meanwhile the Electronic Frontier Foundation has uncovered a routine pattern of abuse at law enforcement agencies. These abuses are not just about violations of privacy; evidence collected by law enforcement agencies can contribute to deportation cases, decisions to place people on blacklists, and other activities that can limit freedom of movement and may result in unlawful imprisonment and other civil rights violations.

It is especially common to see surveillance technology used against activists and agitators, tracking their every move and building cases against them. In these instances, surveillance becomes a weapon to restrict freedom of speech and expression, and to suppress activist movements. This makes it a key issue for people concerned with the future of activist movements and agitation against unjust governments.

Law enforcement agencies have access not just to cameras, but phone records, data from vehicle tracking services, and a myriad of other sources that are so commonplace, they have become unremarkable. The crime drama genre showcases the ways in which surveillance is used, all of which are presented as positive: following a kidnapping victim to get her safely home; tracking a criminal to his hideaway; monitoring movements of a truck by following a tolling pass; capturing an incriminating moment on screen.

The overarching message is, of course, hooray for surveillance, law enforcement tool of the future. Apparently everyone has forgotten Winston Smith cowering out of view of the telescreen.

For television viewers, the use of surveillance is natural and expected on the screen, and they’re starting to expect it in their lives, right down to the nannycams wealthy parents install in the bedroom of their children without consent from children or their carers. Much as the CSI effect has changed the way members of the public view forensics, the display of formidable surveillance technology is starting to shift public attitudes toward surveillance.

Those attitudes are increasingly trending towards inevitable acceptance in the face of something frequently presented, and viewed, as a necessary and useful thing. People own and use technologies with full awareness that they can enable surveillance, and sometimes even facilitate law enforcement tracking through geographic location services like FourSquare, which allow them to tell people where they are at all times; who needs a warrant when you have a Twitter feed to follow?

But how necessary is surveillance? And why aren’t crime dramas exploring the critical privacy implications of surveillance technology, and the people who are resisting the spread of intrusive technologies into the lives of ordinary citizens?


Got him! Now, if only we can tie him to the scene at the docks…

Shows like Homeland and CSI glamorise the law enforcement life, and they also normalise invasive technologies used by law enforcement agencies. While some of the tech on display on television doesn’t exist in the real world yet, some of it is most certainly in development, and government agencies are no doubt appreciative that the creators of pop culture are providing a soft, friendly introduction that enthuses rather than terrifies the general public. As people grow to accept these technologies through exposure in their entertainment, it’s harder to resist them when they are introduced in the real world.

There’s something thrilling about seeing a real-time satellite zoom in on the bad guy, or watching technicians track secret bank accounts with a flurry of keys, rapidly paging through phone records to find an incriminating number, utilising technology as the ultimate crimesolving weapon. As viewers, of course, we are presented with law enforcement as the heroes, and are rarely exposed to the flip side of the coin; the people they are chasing.

Even when storylines involving invasion of privacy come up, they primarily focus on situations in which innocent people experience such violations, as though the guilty should have no rights. And the intrusion into the lives of innocent people is, again, presented as a necessary evil; unfortunate, but required to get to the bottom of the mystery and bring the bad guy in by the end of the hour.

Shows aimed at a more fun demographic, like Grimm and Castle, also reinforce the ubiquitous presence of surveillance technologies, as well as the abuse of such. Nick on Grimm, for example, grabs a license plate number and uses it to track a truck off the clock, even though this is an abuse of government resources. The two-part Castle episode stretching over this week and last also featured a great deal of surveillance technology and presented it as ‘cool’ for viewers; Castle and Beckett were obviously wowed by the sophistication on display, and neither took a moment to wonder about which ethics, let alone laws, might be breached by what they saw.

Many of these shows are vegging out material for privacy and social justice activists, if realtime reactions on my Twitter stream are any indication. People get giddy about storylines and speculate on the conclusions of epic episodes. What they aren’t talking about nearly as much is the dangerous precedents being set by making intrusive law enforcement techniques such a familiar part of the landscape; many of these people are fighting surveillance in their day jobs, and kicking back to relax and watch it when they clock out at the end of the day.

Here in the United States, the surveillance camera movement isn’t quite as widespread as it is in Britain. But it could be, and it will be, if people don’t recognise what’s happening and put a stop to it, and the normalisation of surveillance in pop culture is a deeply troubling trend that needs to be addressed, and countered.

THE BAD GUY operates a jammer, shutting down all the surveillance feeds. OUR HERO desperately pounds the keyboard, tabbing from window to window with a furious expression.

Fade to black.

One thought on “Watching Them Watching Us: Surveillance on TV

  1. Yeah really: get her license, she yelled in her car on her bluetooth and made an ‘expression’. She’s bad!!!. She’s bugging us!!! Call DMV, the cops, the mafia, get her out of our faces. Lock her up. She’ s this, that, she’s LOOKING AT US LOOKING AT HER. Excuse me, this world has gone hopelessly insane because of surveillance.

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