Always Listening: 11 Films and TV Shows that Tap into our Deepest Fears about Phone Surveillance

12.10.15 / Nicholas Greene

These days, it really does feel like everyone is watching everyone else. Private information has become commodified, and countries are increasingly spying on one another (and on their own citizens and allies) due in large part to the Internet. And people – consumers and business leaders alike – are well aware of it.

A 2014 Pew Internet survey revealed that 91% of American adults feel consumers have lost control over their information, while 87% are at least aware that they’re being monitored. Not surprisingly, most are unhappy about it, with 80% in agreement that having an entity listen in on phone and Internet communications is cause for concern. As it so often does, the entertainment industry has mirrored public consciousness.  In an era where it seems we hear about a new data breach or espionage incident every week, movies and TV shows on the topic of surveillance feel particularly poignant.

The particular brand of surveillance present in these properties takes many forms, but most often appears as wiretapping or, more recently, phone hacking – a variety of technologies that allow one to listen in on phone conversations. And what do these movies and TV shows ultimately teach us about digital security in an age where everyone wants to listen in?

The Wire (2002-2008)

The Wire realistically portrays Baltimore’s war on drugs, complete with surveillance tech

Although crime drama The Wire mostly focused on a realistic portrayal of Baltimore’s war on drugs, it also had electronic surveillance as a central theme. And in the DVD commentary for the first episode, The Target, the director admitted he wanted to give the sense of always being watched, perhaps driving home how much surveillance equipment surrounds us in our day-to-day lives, for good or ill. Notably, the equipment portrayed in The Wire was originally too realistic, and featured stuff like Stingray, a piece of cell-phone tracking technology capable of spoofing cell towers(among other things).

The Takeaway: The Baltimore PD was using Stingray as early as 2007 – which makes one wonder what sort of tech might be in circulation today, especially among black hats.

Bones (2005- )

Brennan and her partner Booth are no strangers to clashing with other law enforcement agencies

Brennan and her partner Booth are no strangers to clashing with other law enforcement agencies.

BlackBerry plays a starring role in Bones, as the brand of choice for both protagonists. 

In the recent season of crime drama/comedy Bones, one episode may have hit a little too close to home for some viewers. High Treason in the Holiday Season deals with the murder of a political journalist responsible for exposing invasive surveillance tactics and corruption in the NSA. As Dr. Brennan and her team try to get to the bottom of the killing, they realize that they’re being watched, and soon begin checking their phones for signs that they’ve been hacked.

As it turns out, someone is indeed listening in on the entire investigation, which eventually takes them to an inn that caters to Washington’s elite, complete with signal jammers and a no phone or WiFI rule.

The Takeaway: Government monitoring is really nothing new, but there’s always the risk of someone within an organization or department taking things too far.

V for Vendetta (2006)

V for Vendetta’s Britain is a surveillance state where privacy is a thing of the past.

V for Vendetta is a dystopian thriller that takes place in a near-future United Kingdom suffering under the iron fist of a totalitarian government. This neo-fascist regime employs heavy video surveillance, regularly taps citizens’ phone conversations, and performs random audio sweeps to monitor the populace for sedition. And no one – not even the nation’s foremost government and media personalities – is exempt.

The Takeaway: Although modern nations hardly engage in surveillance as heavy as what’s seen in the movie, V for Vendetta nevertheless serves as a reminder that organized entities could be listening in on sensitive communications.

Pretty Little Liars (2010-2011)

Pretty Little Liars explores how easy it really is to reveal our deep, dark secrets

Pretty Little Liars explores how easy it really is to reveal our deep, dark secrets.

There are multiple instances of surveillance and phone hacking in Pretty Little Liars, a teen mystery series which pits four friends against an anonymous antagonist who threatens to reveal all of their deepest, darkest secrets, and has the means to make good on that threat. Known only as “A,” this individual uses multiple techniques to gain access to phone calls, messages, security footage, and Internet use, including Bluesnarfing. The protagonists aren’t blameless themselves, though, and they regularly listen in on remote phone calls and eavesdrop on private conversations.

The Takeaway: Surveillance is a lot easier than you’d think – you don’t necessarily need a billion-dollar budget or a team of elite hackers to pull it off. You just need the right tools.

The Bourne Trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007)

Surveillance and phone tapping both play a central role in the Bourne Trilogy

Surveillance and phone tapping both play a central role in the Bourne Trilogy.

Over the course of the Bourne films (The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum), audio surveillance serves as a central plot point.  In the second film, ex-CIA agent Jason Bourne uses a copied SIM card to listen in on a conversation between the film’s antagonists, allowing him to draw them into a trap. In the third film, phone tapping is even more central: Pamela Landry, an agent hunting Bourne, is revealed to have a tap on her phone, placed there by the film’s main antagonist, Noah Vosen. Vosen also intercepts a text sent to Landry by Bourne to arrange a meetup.

The Takeaway: There are many ways someone can listen in on a phone conversation. It’s not all camouflaged vans and wiretaps.

The Last Enemy (2008)

The Last Enemy explores the complexities inherent in surveillance of any kind.

The Last Enemy explores the complexities inherent in surveillance of any kind.

Set in London, The Last Enemy is a drama that deals with the introduction of a database known as “Total Information Awareness,” which places all available government and corporate information – bank activity, phone records, Internet use, etc. – in one place. It raises many questions about the morality of surveillance, and explores a number of complex questions about privacy and security.

The Takeaway: Privacy aside, surveillance of any kind is not a morally black-or-white issue.

The Dark Knight (2008)

In The Dark Knight, Batman tracks down The Joker using surveillance technology that exists in real life.

In order to track down The Joker towards the end of The Dark Knight, vigilante Batman sets up a sonar device that allows him to hack and listen in on every single cell phone in Gotham. Though that may sound absurd, researchers at Lausanne’s Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, which in 2013 released a report revealing that they’d successfully mapped a room with sonar. The most interesting (and troubling) line in the report pertains to cell phones:

 “As an extension of our method,” reads the SFIT report, “a person walking around the room and talking into a cell phone could enable us to both hear the room and find the person’s location.”

The Takeaway: The Dark Knight and the SFIT’s experiment together present clear evidence that if someone’s determined enough to listen in on a call, encryption won’t always be enough.

Person of Interest (2011- )

Person of Interest is an ongoing American sci-fi crime drama centered on an advanced surveillance system known only as “The Machine.”  Driven by a powerful AI, The Machine taps into everything from video surveillance to phone calls to emails to digital paper trails. Then, each time a serious crime is about to take place, The Machine spits out the social security number of one of the individuals involved.

The two main characters must then prevent the crime, without knowing anything about the perpetrator or the nature of the crime that will occur.

The Takeaway: There exists a wealth of information online about all of us. Whether from listening in on phone calls, looking at social media accounts, or tracking browsing, it’s incredibly easy to find out who someone is in this day and age – as well as what they’re doing.

The Newsroom (2012-2014)

The NSA’s role in the newsroom feels eerily similar to events in the real-world Snowden scandal.

A TV drama about a news anchor looking to go back to the glory days of journalism, one wouldn’t expect The Newsroom to deal with spying. Yet it does, especially in the last three episodes of season one. In addition to the team coming across a widespread surveillance scandal, main character Will finds out that a gossip columnist has information that can destroy his career and life – which she obtained by hacking his colleague’s voicemail.

The Takeaway:  The exchange between NSA informant Solomon Hancock and Atlantic News Division Director Charlie Skinner (pictured above) in episode eight of season one sums it up best:

Skinner: You have reason to believe you’re under surveillance?

Hancock: Everyone’s under surveillance if they’ve got a cell phone.

Scandal (2012- )

In Scandal, your secrets aren’t as private as you’d think.

Scandal’s another show where BlackBerry makes plenty of appearances on-screen.

Given that it’s a political thriller centered on a high-level crisis management firm, Scandal features plenty of examples of both intrigue and surveillance. What’s more, everyone in the show has something to hide – including protagonist Olivia Pope. And there are multiple ways of obtaining that information beyond simply bugging cell phones and listening in on calls – all of which come up at least once over the course of the show’s lifetime.

The Takeaway: If someone knows where to look, they can dig up a great many secrets about us – including plenty of stuff we’d rather didn’t see the light of day. Our phones are a prime avenue through which one might do so, but they’re far from the only one.

Hack Attack (TBD; Working Title)

Hack Attack explores the News International phone scandal, and the downfall of Rupert Murdoch (pictured) in the public eye.

Last but certainly not least, it was announced last year that George Clooney will direct a film about the News International phone hacking scandal, where it was discovered that journalists tapped and hacked the phones of everyone from regular employees to politicians to minor celebrities to the UK royal family. The film, whose release date has yet to be decided, will be based on Hack Attack, a book written by one of the journalist’s at the scandal’s center.  Although it’s unclear whether it will be a straight documentary or a docudrama in the vein of The Social Network, it nevertheless offers troubling – yet valuable – insight about the nature of modern security and privacy.

The Takeaway: If everyone isn’t secure within your organization, then no one is. All it takes is one weak link for data to be leaked, after all.

Closing Thoughts

The most distressing part about these films is that every one of them is plausible to one extent or another.  The fact is that people – be they overseas entities or domestic rivals – are going to try to listen in on your phone calls and messages.  And you need to protect yourself from their attempts to do so.

To that end, we offer two solutions:

Hosted on the secure BlackBerry Infrastructure, the software-based SecuSUITE for Enterprise is our renowned anti-surveillance mobile communications software, designed to protect voice calls, text messages, email, and many other channels from eavesdropping and third-party attacks. It runs on iOS, Android (including PRIV) and BlackBerry 10 smartphones, with direct connections to more than 600 global carriers. Employees can reach anyone they need to quickly, securely, and most importantly, without difficulty – SecuSUITE is designed above all for ease of use, and offers simple management/deployment, minimal call setup, and crystal-clear voice quality.

BBM Enterprise (formerly known as BBM Protected) builds upon the proven BlackBerry security model, and is trusted by conscientious organizations around the world. The secure root of trust in BlackBerry devices extends from hardware up through the software and application layers, protecting messages whether in-transit or at rest on the device. Messages are also secured on iOS and Android as well, so you never have to worry about someone listening in.

We live in an era where everyone is listening in on everyone else – and we know that. We thus owe it to ourselves to do whatever it takes to keep our own information safe. That includes making sure our organizations are using the right encryption and security technology.

Otherwise, we might as well give away all our secrets for free.

About Nicholas Greene