Sinister Surveillance

You are being watched.

"I have installed security cameras all over Japan, because when you're rich, you can never be too paranoid."

There are cameras on every street. Private phones can be tapped. Every electronic device is open to monitoring, and a hundred or more companies, governments and secret organizations can and are accumulating all this information on individuals into a huge database of discrete files which a simple algorithm can use to divine anyone's actions. The wake of 9/11 has brought the likes of the PATRIOT Act in many countries, curtailing privacy and enhancing the legal tools for governments to spy on their own citizens.

We are being watched.

Of course, so are the criminals, terrorists, foreign spies and sundry malcontents. Surely, our well meaning governments will use these tools and powers to ensure our safety. Eh... no.

The problem with surveillance, as a form of violation of privacy and rendering you completely naked and vulnerable, is that it's inherently humiliating, squicky, dehumanizing, sinister, and dark. It's what George Orwell warned us about, and even if it is used exactly for what it's intended for, the potential for abuse is limitless.

If you want to write about a terrifying dystopia that is all too possible to happen in the real world, then use this trope. Put Secret Police, Surveillance Drones, Eye Motifs and such on every corner. Make it so that you can never trust any electronic communication, even your own computer and telephone. Also why the "Big Brother Is Watching" trope gains popularity as one of the most prolific memes to criticize any from of sinister surveillance.

Couple this with Everything Is Online and expanded government surveillance will be treated one of two ways, depending on the user:
  1. If the good guys use it, it will most certainly not be a Magical Computer or the like, with a super Enhance Button. It will barely ever work, enemies thus tracked know how to avoid, hack, or shoot out cameras, and they'll invariably get the intel "five minutes too late" and fail to thwart Stage One of the Evil Plan.
  2. Villains on the other hand, especially the Dystopia, can get this technology to sing and dance for them, tracking heroes with amazing precision, using crackers to fool any heroic techies, and generally stealing this technology out from under anybody's nose and putting the heroes on the ropes. That is, if the technology itself isn't the actual villain.

Thankfully, the heroes always manage to escape earlier than the villains (e.g. less than a week vs. an implied 2-3 years). Villain Ball indeed.

This trope is usually part of an Anvilicious Aesop against government surveillance. When used by a civilian outside of military or federal employ, the individual is either a Stalker Without A Crush, or a licensed Private Investigator or Bounty Hunter. See also Surveillance as the Plot Demands and Big Brother Is Watching.


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     Anime and Manga  

  • In CLAMP's Suki, Hinata's next-door neighbor and teacher is implied to have sinister intentions because he has cameras rigged up to watch her house. In fact he's actually her secret bodyguard.
  • Ghost in the Shell Public Security Section 9 has the IR system, apparently a network of cameras and vehicle tracking systems that cover the cities of Japan. When they need to find someone, they borrow the USA's ECHELON, enabling them to monitor ALL PHONE CONVERSATIONS IN JAPAN IN REAL-TIME. And they're the good guys.
    • And, of course, there's the (highly illegal) ability various entities have demonstrated of remotely watching through any cyberized individual's eyes unnoticed, or even pulling a Grand Theft Me over the 'net with a keypress.
    • Finally, we have the Interceptors: Micromachines that act as cameras and inhabit your eyes. Normally, they can only be installed after an extensive legal application is filed. The Laughing Man arc of Season 1 goes into full swing when Togusa discovers that the detectives investigating the Laughing Man case have been illegally bugged with Interceptors by their own supervisor. The issue plays second-fiddle when a fake Laughing Man attempts a public assassination.
  • Thanks to the Rumble-Rumble Fruit, and coupled with his Mantra, Eneru from One Piece can hear everything that's being said on Skypiea and know everyone's location.

    Comic Books 
  • The fascist party Norsefire uses these, linked to a computer system called Fate. Whom the leader of said fascist party is in love with. V is acutely aware of this fact.
  • Oracle from the DCU uses her surveillance of Gotham to help heroes on various missions, but she also watches Dick Grayson in his apartment. It's not known if he knows (he did grow up with Batman, who uses the same methods). If her own cameras are not sufficient she will hack someone else's.

    Films — Animation 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Eagle Eye has the evil AI use pretty much every terrorism inspired countermeasure to empower the two Action Survivors to evade every law enforcement agency out for them. Somewhat justified since she was expressly given many of these faculties.
  • The Bourne Supremacy frequently has Jason being chased by Mission Control, and cleverly avoiding them by waltzing past camera placements and the like. Perhaps justified since he is a trained super spy.
  • In The Tall Blond Man With One Black Shoe, an innocent man is tagged as a spy by a government guy to distract another government guy. As he walks though the airport, agents are secretly taking his picture - but since he's eating a chewy candy that's stuck in his teeth, every shot of him has his face oddly contorted.
  • In the final act of The President's Analyst from 1967 the title character is abducted in a phone booth under the noses of the two American and Russian agents trying to secure his safety. The American concludes the booth (and all the phones in the country) were tapped; the Russian incredulously replies "Don! This is America, not Russia!"
  • In The Lives of Others, the Stasi rig Dreyman's house.
  • Played with in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate when Marco goes to the library to do his research. Marco notices a surveillance camera in the library and this feeds his paranoia even though nobody in particular was spying on him.
  • In Captain America: The Winter Soldier Dr. Zola explains that pulling this off is relatively simple due to social media, credit reports, and other relatively passive means of observing the populace. The only real difficulty identifying threats is meaningfully combining that data which is why Zola developed an AI that could identify threats for HYDRA.
  • In Ex Machina, even when Nathan isn't present his security cameras are watching everything, making Caleb grow increasingly uncomfortable and paranoid.
  • The documentary, Citizenfour, was made possible because Edward Snowden wanted to show how ubiquitous this trope has become in the world.
  • In Annie (2014), Stacks Mobile collects and monitors data on their users. This later does come in handy, being used to try and track down Annie's parents and to locate her whereabouts when she is kidnapped by the fake parents at the end of the film.

  • 1984 is one of the most famous examples and the origin of the phrase "Big Brother Is Watching." Surveillance cameras, hidden microphones and two-way "telescreens" exist in every home and in every street, spying on citizens, monitoring their every move and showering them with propaganda slogans. The Proles are lucky in that they have no telescreens, and only members of the Inner Party are able to (temporarily) turn their telescreens off.
  • Various types in David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series of novels; it is even suggested by a son of one of the T'ang lords that every citizen (that's all 34 billion of them) should have a tracking/killing device operated into their skulls
  • A magical example in Witches Abroad. Every mirror in Genua can be used by Lady Lilith to ensure that everyone is behaving according to Fairy Tale stereotypes.
    • It's not just every mirror. It's every reflective surface. That window you passed? That puddle you stepped around? She can see you through those too. And in the reflection from the blade of your knife, as you cut up the meat you're eating for dinner.
  • In Daniel Suarez' Daemon, during a meeting of top government TLAs, one of them orders the NSA to track down the Daemon and everyone associated using Echelon. In a realistic subversion of this trope, NSA explains that the Daemon is using a sophisticated darknet for all its communications, and anyway, Echelon doesn't really work like that.
    • Played straight when it's discovered that the Daemon itself has infiltrated most of the accessible surveillance systems worldwide, either directly or through Social Engineering. However it's again played in a reasonably realistic fashion.
  • A slow realization goes to Dr. Hoffmann near the end of The Fear Index. Of just where that picture of him came from, and how the person that is ruining his life could always find him. Hidden cameras in every single fire detector in his office and house (even the bathrooms) and using his own phone to eavesdrop on him.
  • In Ancillary Justice, every Radchaai citizen has tracking implants, and can be watched at any time by government AIs with enough precision to read emotions. While loyal to the ruthless empire, the AIs otherwise seem to generally care about the citizens they are watching. This is especially the case with AIs on military ships towards their crew, such as the protagonist Justice of Toren.
  • No one can turn the speakers off...except The Giver.
  • In Heart Of Steel, Alistair has security cameras all over his island lair... except in the bathroom of Julia's guest room.

     Live Action TV  

  • Also, Alias used Echelon several times.
  • Burn Notice has this as both a tool and a hinderance to the gang. They use surveillance themselves but Michael is under close observation himself at various points in the show and this is used to blackmail him.
  • Torchwood uses it by the good guys a lot.
  • In Spooks MI:5 can access pretty much every CCTV camera in the country, but it's far from omnipresent, and they often have to rely on teams of agents tailing a suspect instead.
  • On Heroes Volume 4, The Government can access and analyze traffic camera footage from all over the U.S. and identify the driver of a single car on the highway within minutes.
  • In the first episode of Star Trek: The Original Series to feature the Klingons, the Klingon military governor of a strategically located planet claimed Klingon society functioned this way:
    Kor: Do you know why we are so strong? Because we are a unit. Each of us is part of a greater whole. Always under surveillance. Even a commander like myself. Always under surveillance, Captain.
  • Mark Gatiss' character in Sherlock, then subverted when viewers realize he isn't so sinister.
  • On The Prisoner, Number Six is always under surveillance...especially when he believes he isn't.
  • In ''Homeland, Carrie Mathison watches Brody's life through a series of cameras and mikes she has installed at his house.
  • In Blake's 7, the Federation's almighty presence is frequently signified by those white security cameras that show up everywhere, even the teaser.
  • Person of Interest:
    • The show manages to subvert this trope as often as playing it straight. Finch uses the sinister surveillance for good, and the Machine, the sapient supercomputer responsible for running and analyzing all this surveillance data, uses it to predict acts of terror and violent crimes so that someone can intervene. However, the government agency who controls the Machine isn't always so scrupulous. Significantly, both the good guys and the nefarious government agency in charge of the Machine get the exact same amount of information from the surveillance. Finch designed the Machine so it only provides the Social Security number of a victim or perpetrator and the people receiving the information have to rely on more mundane surveillance methods to determine what is really going on.
      The Machine: [through Root] Trust in me. I am always watching.
    • In season 3, played straight for Samaritan once it comes online. It's first directive: Kill Finch
  • Extant:
    • The spacecraft had camera all over the place in order to review the mission at mission control and to enable the on-board computer to monitor the whole craft. Molly deletes it afterwards to remove evidence that she was talking to her dead boyfriend.
    • Back on Earth the ISEA facility is covered with camera too which is used to keep an eye on Molly forcing her to come up with ways to avoid them without being obvious that she's attempting to avoid them.
  • Todd and the Book of Pure Evil: In season 2, Atticus forces the A/V club to install security cameras around the school, with a private feed to his office, allowing him to both spy on the gang, and allow him to search for the Book of Pure Evil.


  • The music video for OOMPH!'s song Träumst Du? Has a Grounds Keeper or Janitor pleasuring himself over the surveillance he has of the Hot Teacher in her classroom with zooming and audio feeds. Quite the perverse video.
  • Isis named their third album Panopticon after Jeremy Bentham's concept for a prison in which the guards could view all the prisoners at once while the prisoners could not view the guard. Later sources, most notably Michel Foucault, expanded on this to suggest that every hierarchical institution in society was in some respect modelled after Bentham's panopticon, and the album is an overview of how surveillance has taken over American culture, including the Internet. This theme seeps into much of Isis' other work, as well.
  • Panopticon is also named after Bentham's prison, and for similar reasons. While Isis downplayed their political motives in writing about surveillance, Panopticon the band is openly anarchist.

     Tabletop Games  

  • Paranoia. Fully justified, as Friend Computer has to watch everywhere, because that's where Commie Mutant Traitors can be found lurking. Though, like everything else in Alpha Complex, it's far from perfect. Later editions quantify the likelihood that an action in a certain area will be noticed by someone else.
  • The Seers of the Throne have the Ministry of Panopticon, dedicated to both creating a surveillance state and creating the perception of a surveillance state. If you're being watched, you're being judged. If you're being judged, you won't take risks. If you don't take risks, you don't Awaken.

     Video Games  

     Web Comics  

     Web Original  

  • Plenty in Broken Saints, partly serving also as Surveillance as the Plot Demands: BIOCOM staff housing has very tight security.
  • Features in Tony Jones' Alternate History work Cliveless World. The Panopticon, a Real Life proposed prison that reforms criminals by putting them under constant surveillance, becomes very popular and is applied to the general public as well as early as the eighteenth century. Eventually reaction to this creates an anti-surveillance ideology, the Nullopticon Movement.

     Western Animation  

  • Inspector Gadget, obviously: Dr. Claw has cameras everywhere.
    • Including, occasionally, Gadget's house.
  • Used occasionally in Batman: The Animated Series, which is often lampshaded by writer commentary. One episode in particular has the Joker show fellow villains a recording of a time he took over a late night television show - a video that includes camera shots backstage and all around the studio, in angles that shouldn't be possible. Another has Batman watch security videos of Mr. Freeze's origin, which for some reason includes close ups and camera cuts, as though someone not only used a film camera but edited it as well.
  • In Sonic Sat AM, Dr. Robotnik often made use of stealthy, floating camera robots to spy on Sonic and his friends...Popular Science recently had an article on similar technology currently in development by the US Military.
  • Parodied in The Simpsons Movie when the family are on the run. We see a huge room full of government bureaucrats listening in on inane conversations until one of them overhears Marge on one of the bugs they installed on a train. The bureaucrat joyfully leaps up and declares, "We found them! The U.S. Government actually found somebody we're looking for!"
  • The 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon was particularly bad about this, as Shredder could pull up live surveillance feed from pretty much anywhere he damn well pleased. Sort of becomes a case of Fridge Logic when you consider that he was still never able to locate the turtles' lair.
  • Soundwave from Transformers Prime seems to be keeping tabs on everyone, in the premiere he's able to intercept communications between the Autobots and Agent Fowler without leaving the Nemesis. Aside from spying on enemies, he also keeps tabs on his fellow Decepticons in case any are plotting against Megatron. Made creepier by the fact that the only times he talks is in a distorted repeat of another character's dialogue.
  • The titular character and main villain in Belphegor is seen having cameras installed all over Paris. Belphegor uses them for spying purposes, which helps him a lot in his plans and is often the reason he's one step ahead of the protagonists.
  • YMMV, but Vee of Chuggington seems to come across as this, both functioning as a depot announcer and justifiably somewhat of a mother figure (for all purposes and intents), but the fact that she joins in the conversation makes her appear to be a disturbingly stalkerish personality, a faceless, overarching Big Sister, if you will.
  • Benson of Regular Show attempts this in the episode "Peeps", when he sees that Mordecai and Rigby start slacking off whenever he's not around; It goes too far when he calls for the maximum version of his surveillance system: A living, floating eyeball named Peeps that stalks everyone. Fortunately, Rigby knew how to cheat on staring contests at the time.

     Real Life  

  • The United Kingdom: 4.2 million cameras, one for every 14 people (approx) the Oyster card system which keeps track of your travel in the last month. ID cards scheme: cancelled.
    • Most all of those cameras are in private hands, however, and it seems that a good 80% don't provide good enough footage for a criminal court. Also, those Oyster Cards? They just have your bus (and train and tube) fare. And the government only wants records of between whom the e-mail was sent, not any of its content. Rather anticlimactic, really, but the government's anti-welfare fraud Government Information Adverts must have taken lessons from 1984. As for London Transport's "Safe Under The Watchful Eyes" poster, you'd be forgiven for thinking it was created by a disgruntled designer intentionally alluding to 1984.
    • The 4.2m figure comes from researchers taking a figure from one street and multiplying it by how many streets there are in the UK as a whole. Many streets are probably un-monitored or not as tightly monitored as the average town's high street. It's the same way that one researcher investigating the so-called "Burning Times" came up with the vastly exaggerated number of people allegedly burnt for witchcraft, which was later revealed to be shoddy methodology as she took an extreme case as the basis for her calculations. Plus research suggests that it does cut crime, mostly by deterrence - even academics in favour of stricter controls admit to that.
    • “The problem with the so-called bloody surveillance state is that it’s hard work trying to track someone’s movements using CCTV – especially if they’re on foot. Part of the problem is that the cameras all belong to different people for different reasons. Westminster Council has a network for traffic violations, the Oxford Street Trading Association has a huge network aimed at shop-lifters and pickpockets, individual shops have their own systems, as do pubs, clubs and buses. When you walk around London it is important to remember that Big Brother may be watching you, or he could be having a piss, or reading the paper or helping redirect traffic around a car accident or maybe he’s just forgotten to turn the bloody thing on.” — Rivers of London
    • They have had an effect supposedly. Anecdotes from tourists indicate that taxi drivers are no longer willing to wait even as long as five minutes at a curb because the drivers have been fined for as much by bureaucrats reviewing footage.
    • Automatic Number-Plate Recognition capabilities have been built into a few static CCTV cameras in London, which then went on to provide a marvelous demonstration of why this trope tends to backfire in Real Life. Almost one in ten cars were showing up with some violation or other, mostly having no insurance or road tax, and there was no way to respond to even a fraction of them. Static ANPR cameras now trigger an alert to the dispatch office when they pick up a vehicle that's been reported stolen or in connection with another crime.
    • It should be noted as well that only London uses the Oyster Cards.
  • Many countries in Southeast Asia mandate that every citizen carry an ID card. These came about out of paranoia in the '60s to weed out communist spies. It has since evolved into a double-edged sword where contracts cannot be forged without a copy of the ID card of both parties being present, providing an additional security layer against identity theft.
  • Some people consider domestic use of UAVs and drones for various purposes to be violations of their rights; likewise, many criminals oppose their use because it allows the cops to see what they're doing in their backyards, so if they ever do anything illegal, ever, it will be caught on camera. Of course, aside from the incredible expense of having UAVs follow everyone around, it is obviously legal; per the laws of the United States (and indeed, virtually all countries), airspace beyond what you use is considered public airspace, and open to be used by anyone with a permit to operate a flying vehicle - otherwise, airplanes couldn't fly across the country. Likewise, people are free to take pictures from public spaces, otherwise things like Google Street View (or taking pictures anywhere outside of your home) would be illegal.
  • A network of security cameras not controlled by the police was recently discovered in Maryland.
  • The state-wide surveillance operations performed by the Stasi in East Germany between the 1950's and 1980's were nothing less than Orwellian in magnitude. To quote just a single paragraph in the Wikipedia article (among many, many similar ones) on the subject: "Full-time officers were posted to all major industrial plants (the extensiveness of any surveillance largely depended on how valuable a product was to the economy) and one tenant in every apartment building was designated as a watchdog reporting to an area representative of the Volkspolizei (Vopo). Spies reported every relative or friend who stayed the night at another's apartment. Tiny holes were drilled in apartment and hotel room walls through which Stasi agents filmed citizens with special video cameras. Schools, universities, and hospitals were extensively infiltrated."
  • Man-in-the-middle-attacks on local area networks can be used to snoop data packets across the whole network. Case in point: ettercap. Will you ever feel safe again on your college wifi?
  • The infamous 2013 mass surveillance disclosures. Codenamed FVEY or Five Eyes.