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What Pop Culture Has To Say About NSA Spying

For me, the most surprising aspect about the revelations of the NSA’s spying programs are: 1) That the NSA is largely absent in movies and TV shows; and 2) that our view of spying is still largely 1960s James Bond-esque.

Let’s start with the NSA. Off the top of my head, I can only think of two films where the NSA is prominently featured: Sneakers (1992) and Enemy of the State (1998).

Sneakers, made nearly a decade before 9/11, is surprisingly prophetic about the current situation: the NSA develops technology for hacking domestic computer systems to that it can spy on Americans — though they are most interested in spying on other government agencies.

Sneakers — and don’t get me wrong, it’s a great film that holds up quite well — only peripherally deals with the morals and consequences of spying.  In the movie the NSA is not the bad guy — it’s the people who steal the spying technology for their own personal gain (but the NSA is still not to be trusted).

And that’s pop culture’s regular concern about technological innovations: we should be worried about it because if it ever got into the hands it could be terribly abused.

Conversely, in Enemy of the State the bad guy is the NSA, or at least an NSA agent. But the film offers no real indictment of the NSA and what they do, it’s more about power hungry government employees abusing their power — another regular pop culture concern.

While there are few movies and TV shows that actually involve the NSA, spying and wiretapping has been a very popular topic for decades. Two of the most lucrative movie franchises are about spying: James Bond and Mission: Impossible.

Our pop culture spies tend to be pretty low tech — it’s still a largely face-to-face business. Spies are always out in the field — rarely do we see them sitting behind a desk studying something on a computer screen.

Technology is of coursed heavily featured in these movies — in the last Bond movie the bad guy was a hacker — but the IT half of spying is typically relegated to the sidekick who is overtly emasculated compared to the hero. (Why can’t the good guy hacker be a sex symbol?)

TV has offered a more realistic view of what modern-day spying really looks like.  

The Wire heavily dealt with the mechanics of spying on people — maybe more so than any TV show or movie. To recap, it started with bugging phones and pagers, and moved on to computer systems, disposable phones, text messages and MMS messages.

Out of all the issues the show tackled, it never really touched on privacy concerns despite all of the impressive ways the police could spy on the drug dealers, even when the police skirted the law (such as labeling a non-pertinent conversation as pertinent to help establish probably cause) to outright breaking the law with unauthorized wiretaps. There was never any question about who was a drug dealer, so the ends always justified the means.

Similarly, in Homeland most of the spying is done behind computer monitors, and the surveillance powers of the government are presented as overwhelming — notably installing hidden cameras in every room of someone’s house. And like The Wire, the good guys break the law, but there is still no debate about privacy rights.

Homeland did seem like it was going to deal with the right to privacy at one point. In the second episode of the first season Saul gets a FISA warrant to make Carrie’s illegal surveillance legal by blackmailing a judge. And given that the judge was played by Michael McKean, it seemed like this storyline would have legs. But like many storylines on the show, it went nowhere.

One of the few movies that I can think of that really delves into privacy issues and morals of it is The Conversation. Like Sneakers, it’s another film that’s ahead of its time. It provides example after example how anyone can be recorded no matter how many layers of defense they put up.

But what’s really interesting about The Conversation is that it deals with ordinary people spying on each other, and that the person doing the spying is not an agent of the government but a private individual. And littered though out the film are small examples of how anyone can be a spy, how you can buy a black box of the shelf to turn your phone into a listening device for spying on your spouse. In a sense it’s the most paranoid movie about spying. It imagines a future where any person can conduct their own covert spying operation — we should be more worried about what individuals are doing than the government because there isn’t even a FISA court monitoring their actions.

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