NSA on TV and film: the shows that predicted the surveillance revelation

Homeland, the slick Showtime drama
renowned for its improbable
cliffhangers, is back for a third
season in the US on Sunday, and in
the UK a week later.
But there's something else about the
show that made Damian Lewis a
household name in the US: Homeland
predicted one of the biggest news
stories of the year.
In one of the first episodes of
Homeland, CIA division chief Saul
Berenson blackmails a federal judge
into granting a warrant from the
secretive Fisa court to allow his star
agent, Carrie Mathison, to surveil
Nicholas Brody, the US marine she
suspects of being a terrorist.
But very few viewers would have
known much about the Fisa court,
until June, when Edward Snowden's
revelations showed the workings of
the shadowy court that oversees the
intelligence apparatus in the United
States.
Which prompted the question – which
other TV shows and films over the
years tried to warn us about all of
this? And how did we not see this
coming?
Whiz Kids (1984)
In one particular episode of this
critically acclaimed series, the
computer-adept “whiz kids” get in
trouble after accidentally hacking
into National Security Agency
computers. An adult authority
explains:
Some people wonder if they even
exist. You know, they're more secret
than the FBI and CIA put together.
Not only does the NSA catch the teens
exposing its security flaws, the
resulting threat of prosecution means
the hackers’ band can’t perform at a
school dance. Golly.
Notable technology: Typewriters
Good Will Hunting (1997)
After Will is identified as a math
genius, the NSA tries to entice him to
become a code-breaker. When the
NSA recruiter challenges Will to find
one reason why he shouldn’t work
for them, Will pretty much eats him
alive with words. The monologue is
too long to publish, but here’s a
quote:
I figure, fuck it, while I'm at it, why
not just shoot my buddy, take his job
and give it to his sworn enemy? Hike
up gas prices, bomb a village, club a
baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join
the National Guard? I could be
elected president.
Notable technology: Payphones
Murder She Wrote movie: South
by Southwest (1997)
America’s nosiest crime writer,
Jessica Fletcher, is on a cross-country
Amtrak train from Los Angeles when
she befriends the only witness to the
murder of an NSA employee “who
was going to leak information that
was going to compromise our
government”. Jessica’s new friend
goes missing from the dining car, and
the journalist helping her investigate
the disappearance turns up dead soon
after.
Pursued by an FBI agent, Jessica
stumbles across a restricted
government area in the middle of the
desert, where she learns her missing
new friend was an NSA analyst
herself – one going through a messy
divorce, “mentally erratic”, and
possibly in possession of encryption
data for every single US military
satellite, worth $10m on the open
market (that’s not a typo).
NSA chief: “We simply download
information from satellites and pass
it on to the appropriate agencies.”
Jessica: “Including spy data for the
Pentagon, right?”
NSA chief: “It’s what the NSA does.
We protect all US classified
communications … It only makes the
situation worse if any of of this gets
into the press.”
Notable technology: Original
Nintendo Gameboy
Enemy of the State (1998)
Gene Hackman’s speech in the second
half of this movie about what
happens when the government tries to
pass a bill expanding its surveillance
powers, eerily parallels Snowden’s
revelations this year. Note: we’re not
the first to realize this fact. Zeke
Miller from Time pointed it out
earlier this summer:
The government’s been in bed with
the entire telecommunications
business since the 40s. They have
infected everything. They can get into
your bank statements, computer files,
e mail, listen to your phone calls.