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Roger Clarke's 'Sci-Fi and Surveillance'

Surveillance in Speculative Fiction:
Have Our Artists Been Sufficiently Imaginative?

Emergent Draft of 11 October 2009

Used as a basis for a Keynote presentation at the Access & Privacy Workshop in Toronto on 27 October 2009, and a seminar at Cambridge Computer Laboratory on 2 November 2009

Roger Clarke **

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There are many variants of surveillance, many pitfalls, and potentially serious consequences for 'good people' as well as 'the baddies'. Fiction-writers of all kinds have taken advantage of the enormous scope that surveillance provides for story-lines and plot-twists. However, although writers of speculative fiction have been running ahead of reality for decades, they need to display more imagination - because reality keeps catching up with them. This paper uses speculative fiction genres and imaginations as a means of identifying several different interpretations of what the surveillance epidemic means for privacy and human freedom.


1. Introduction


The focus in this paper is on the means of surveillance. It strays only a little into the study of the impacts on surveillance. This is addressed in a variety of literatures. In speculative fiction, Ballard and Atwood are particularly important. A number of feature films have provided graphic investigations. Important among them are the French film 'Caché' (2005, released to English markets as 'Hidden') and the German film 'Das Leben der Anderen' (2006, in English-language markets, 'The Lives of Others'). Kafka, the existentialist writers such as Sartre and Camus, and at a philosophical level Foucault, have also addressed those questions.


2. Surveillance

The term derives from the French 'surveiller'. It has various usages, but relates to observation in order to exercise control, and implies that it is undertaken from above the subject. The English word 'supervise' is closely related, in that it also implies 'above', and 'vision'. The term 'surveillance' originated in France at the time of the French Revolution, in the late 1700s. It was adopted into English at the time, and associated with Bentham's 'panopticon' proposal, which (although it originated a decade earlier, in 1787) was current for 25 years.

See Clarke (1988, 2007).

Many Kinds of Surveillance

A Categorisation Scheme

  1. Of What?
  2. For Whom?
  3. By Whom?
  4. Why?
  5. How?
  6. Where?
  7. When?

Location and Tracking Aspects



3. Surveillance in Speculative Fiction Genres

This section draws upon and significantly expands Clarke (1993). The references drawn on are primarily sci-fi novels and novellas. A great deal of the literary innovation occurs in short stories and performance art, and a great deal of the articulation of ideas is in short stories and games. Populist presentations occur in feature films.

Four broad genres can be usefully distinguished.

3.1 The Anti-Utopia / Dystopia Genre

Information-rich government maintains hegemony over the citizen's actions and thoughts. The State wins, and the individual is crushed.

The defining work is Eugene Zamyatin's 'We' (1922). Others that have followed included:

The imagery used in Zamyatin was aural. His 'Guardians' used 'membranes' (listening devices) mounted on all streets, and rode 'aeros' trailing long black observation tubes. Between 1922 and 1948, television had burst upon the scene, and the imagery inherent in Orwell's dystopia was visual. It featured wall-mounted, two-way 'telescreens', supplemented by physical observation conducted from helicoptors.

Since then, the metaphors that have dominated the genre have been visual ('Big Brother is watching you'). Foucault revived the visual image of Bentham's Panopticon notion of the 1780s to describe the resulting oppression. The 'totalitarian literature' bears a close relationship with this category, such as Kafka, Camus and Sartre. However, literature of that kind tends to focus less on the means and relies instead on a climate of stultification of human behaviour through control exercised by the powerful.

3.2 The Human-as-Cockroach Genre

A related genre is forbidding, but is not quite so hopeless. There is scope for human freedom to survive, by scuttling from cover to cover like cockroaches.

The primary work is John Brunner's 'The Shockwave Rider' (1975). (This anticipated the Internet - even though it's unclear whether Brunner had heard of the nascent ARPANet; and it defined the worm). By turning the power of the net against its presumed sponsors, the hero galvanises the incipient feelings of opposition to the State by other people and discovers other pockets of surviving resistance.

A few other works can be categorised in this manner, although many are more commonly thought of as being in post-Nuclear-Holocaust, post-Environmental/Global-Warming-Disaster or post-Meteor-Strike genres.

A recent and potentially influential novel is Cory Doctorow's 'Little Brother' (2008), written for teenagers. Terrorist attacks are used as an excuse to impose a police state, but young people fight back (Nellis 2009). A new genre of post-National-Security-Extremism may be emergent.

3.3 The Cyberpunk Genre

The term 'cyberpunk' is applied to a series of 'hard sci-fi' short stories and novels. Vernor Vinge's 'True Names' (1981) is widely regarded as the precursor to what followed. The definitive work is William Gibson's 'Neuromancer' (1984). Other important authors have been Bruce Sterling - particularly the introduction to the anthology 'Mirrorshades' (1987), David Brin - particularly Earth (1990), and Neal Stephenson - particularly 'Snowcrash' (1992) and 'Cryptonomicon' (1999).

In the cyberpunk genre, people are prosthetic-enhanced cyborgs, plug directly into the net, and induce their 'highs' through a mix of drugs and cyberspace. The State has become weakened to the point of having marginal relevance. Power is exercised primarily by the 'hypercorps', which conduct organised economic activity, run polite society (the corporation man), and dominate the net and information. Outside the official levels of society skulk large numbers of people, in communities in which formal law and order have broken down, and tribal patterns have re-emerged. Official society sustains a belief in the extent to which it is exercising control, but the tendency is towards ungovernability.

Surveillance is ubiquitous, yet somehow avoidable or capable of being subverted. The means of conducting surveillance has migrated inside individuals' bodies, and in some novels it has become independently mobile, typically as insect-like flying devices or drones.

3.4 The Cyberprep (Sub-)Genre

Some recent writers have adopted many of the trappings of cyberpunk, including ubiquitous surveillance, but for their characters "life is happy rather than gritty and dangerous [and] society is leisure-driven" (Wikipedia entry, accessed 2 Oct 2009). There is a happy beginning, middle and ending, although probably only if you avoid trying to exercise any rights to perform political acts that you may nominally retain.

4. Surveillance in Speculative Fiction and Reality

This section briefly reviews important categories of surveillance, juxtaposing the earliest signs in speculative fiction against the early deployments of the notion.

Aural Surveillance

See the associated notes on sound monitoring.

Visual Surveillance

This is the dominant mode in the public eye, both because of its dominance in literatures of all kinds, its graphic and readily communicated nature, and the explosion in schemes during the closing years of the twentieth century.

See the associated notes on fixed cameras, drones and eye-cameras.


dataveillance since the 1980s, with increasing data capture, increasing intensity, increasing denial of anonymous behaviour, increasing transfer and correlation of personal data, now being extended through the breakdown of the public-private sector divide through 'public-private partnerships'

speculative fiction has treated dataveillance less centrally than visual surveillance. Likely reasons include that it is much more difficult to create graphic story-lines and imagery around flows of abstract data, and that visual monitoring has been the dominant cultural metaphor since at least 1950, and arguably since the late 18th century.

See, however, the associated notes on dataveillance. Moreover, the sense of dataveillance is reflected in some elements of cyberpunk novels, and the scrolling, manipulable data-streams associated with the films 'The Matrix' (1999) and 'Minority Report' ().

Location and Tracking

geo-location of vehicles through embedded passive and active RFID-tags. See the associated notes on motor-vehicles as proxies.

geo-location of computing devices through self-reporting of cell-location (perhaps supported by triangulation and/or signal analysis) and of GPS-derived coordinates

net-location and tracking, particularly by marketers but also law enforcement agencies, through direct action on individuals' devices ('planting' of spyware and of data such as cookies, which carry imposed identifiers)

direct location and tracking of individuals through biometrics. See the associated notes on iris scanning.

direct location and tracking of individuals through anklet monitoring. See the associated notes on attachments.

direct location and tracking of individuals through chip-implants. See the associated notes on implantations.

Treat here a particular variant of the general notion of 'augmented reality' referred to as 'geo-mashups'?

overlaying, onto some form of geographic representation of some space, of data acquired from another source. The term 'geographic representation' is to be understood broadly, and to encompass at least maps such as contour, road, campus, cadastral; vertical images such as satellite or aerial; and horizontal images such as StreetView, 3D. The form in which the overlay data is available may lend itself easily to overlaying (e.g. satellite imagery, which merely has to be scaled in order to be overlaid over a map) or may require pre-processing and simulation or animation (e.g. plot-points for the location of a moving vehicle, overlaid over a satellite image).

?Tightly-Linked Monotoring and Control?

performance artist Stelarc, who has, since about 1970, combined close, physical surveillance with body-implantations and robotics


See the associated text on counter-surveillance.


See the associated text on sousveillance.

sousveillance, counter- or inverse surveillance of watchers by the watched, was arguably implemented by Toronto researcher Steve Mann before a convincing depiction appeared in sci-fi


To the extent that conclusions can be drawn from this material, this one stands out: few of the means of surveillance imagined by sci-fi authors remain to be invented (and many of those that remain imaginary were described even more vaguely than the near-future forms).

5. Is Privacy Dead?

The explosion in surveillance has led to a variety of reactions. This section identifies a number of interpretations of the current state of humanity.

(1) 'You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it'

Scott McNeely, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, was once reported to have said "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it" (Sprenger, 1999). He made the statement in the context of Intel caving in to concerted opposition, and disabling identification features in a new chip. Such features had existed from the outset in machines made by McNeely's company.

Despite the fact that the statement was spoken, not written, and despite the speaker's self-interest, it has been much-quoted as representing the defeatist position on privacy in the era of [computer-supported] surveillance.

(2) 'It's great that privacy is dead'

This is a variant of the aphorism that 'privacy is only needed by people with something to hide'. It's used with approval by the moral minority who believe themselves to be without fault, and believe everyone else to be impregnated with original sin.

The assertion is both false and naive, and there are many responses to it, most simply 'everyone has something to hide, not least their passwords and PINs' (APF 2006).

(3) 'Privacy through secrecy is dead'

This is a precursor to the called for ubiquitous transparency, on the grounds that this is a better form of protection of freedoms (Brin 1998). The technological imperative is irresistible; and privacy protections are futile. Human values can only be sustained by focussing instead on freedom of information for everyone: to achieve privacy, rely on freedom, not secrecy. It is essentially an argument for the adoption of sousveillance, and enforcing open practices by law enforcement agencies and operators of surveillance apparatus such as CCTV control rooms. To co-opt the well-known aphorism:

'Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Ecce, ipsi quos custodiunt custodes'

'Who will guard the guardians themselves? Lo, the very ones whom the guardians guard'

Brin's argument is based on the premise that the watchers will not exercise political power in order to preclude others from watching them. The history of societies suggests that there have always been uneven distributions of power, and that the powerful have had incentives, and in most cases the ability, to exercise their power, and to resist diminution of their power. It would appear that Brin's transparent society can only be achieved if the patterns repeated across millenia of human experience are able to be overturned in short order. So his argument is undermined by the implicit presumptions that the less powerful are more powerful than the more powerful, that no-one will succeed in establishing enclaves of privilege, and that the actions of all will really be able to be monitored by all.

(4) 'The new generation has a completely different approach to privacy'

The Plaxo/Myspace/Facebook/<insert next fad here> generation isn't concerned about privacy, and (by implication) never will be, and they're the future, so privacy is irrelevant now.

This idea is popular, but facile, because it completely overlooks basic social realities. Every cohort is bold and risk-taking when it's young, and doesn't have much to lose (or doesn't notice that it has much to lose). Every cohort becomes less bold, and more risk-averse as it ages, and has more and more to lose, and hence more and more to hide.

This pattern is already evident, within only a few years of the excessive self-disclosures spawned by so-called social networking services. Many people in the 18-25 age-group who enthusiastically disclosed data and images of themselves and their associates regret what they did; and people in the 12-18 age-group are commonly much more circumspect than their seniors were.

RATIONALISE THAT WITH: One piece of evidence comes from the 'new new Generation'. The excesses of self-disclosure have been committed by people who are currently 20-somethings. The current teens are far wiser, and much less likely to publish sensitive data that they later regret. The 'new Generation' / low-privacy cohort may have been a decade or so, and may well be closely followed by a far savvier 'new new Generation' that values privacy - and that is capable of doing something about privacy-invasive behaviour.

What has changed is that previous cohorts' indiscretions were only visible locally and by people present at the time, rather than available widely and for an extended period of time, because they are recorded, published and archived. But it's a serious mistake to project from those changes the conclusions that because a few people self-disclose in dangerous ways, therefore everyone does, and always will, and that privacy needs and values have abruptly changed.

On the contrary, the rational expectation is that the 'new generation' will become even more paranoid about privacy than its predecessors, because there's so much out there, somewhere, that can come back and haunt them.

(5) 'Privacy is bruised, but unbowed'

Privacy is a human need, and a human value. It's high on the Maslowian scale, so safety and hunger will always outrank it, and social needs will compete with it and often win. But it's a human need and value that will logically loom larger in the more comfortable, leisure-driven world that future generations will enjoy (assuming they can overcome the challenges of nuclear proliferation, pollution, global warming, over-population, resources wars, water wars, meteor strike, etc.).

(6) 'Privacy is essential for humanity to survive'

A great deal of speculative fiction depicts the vacuousness of life without privacy. At least for the authors of fiction, it appears to be inconceivable for a world to be worth living in without sufficient freedoms, crucially among them freedom from unremitting monitoring of one's actions and communications.

All fiction values individualism. And all fiction reflects the understanding that individualism depends on sufficient freedoms to enable behaviour and communications that deviate from what the powerful in society want people to do and say.

6. Conclusions

There's vast scope for writers of speculative fiction to use surveillance and privacy expectations as elements in plot-lines. And they use it to probe for gaps in the surveillance web, for means of subverting it, and hence for survival of individualism. As Nellis (2009a) put it, "From the Scarlet Pimpernel onwards, in traditional crime and spy thrillers, insouciant and ingenious heroes routinely stay 'one step ahead' of powerful opponents, but twenty-first century heroes require quite specific counter-surveillance skills to achieve this. Anonymity must now be worked at, via easy access to forged identity documents, the capacity to route untraceable phone calls through the net and, when necessary, an ability to anticipate and dodge the swivel and and tilt of CCTV cameras".

After reviewing a considerable body of speculative fiction while preparing this paper, I draw the conclusions that the deepening and broadening of surveillance that we've endured during the last couple of decades is heightening privacy concerns, and confirming the importance of privacy as a basis for 21st century humanity. It represents a warning that thresholds of public acceptability of surveillance are being rapidly approached, and that sullen submission is likely to be increasingly replaced by active opposition.

I've argued that we must teach our technologies not only to remember, but also to forget (Clarke 2008). One speculative fiction writer has gone further. The machines ('Minds'), in the Culture series of Iain Banks (1991), forego the use of their surveillance powers except where consent or reasonable grounds for suspicion exist. Our societies need to exercise their collective intelligence, and mould their technologies rather than be moulded by them.


Atwood M.P. (1987) 'The Handmaid's Tale', Cape, 1986

Banks I.M. (1991) 'The State of the Art' Orbit, 1991

Brunner J. (1975) 'The Shockwave Rider' Ballantine, 1975

Clarke R.A. (1988) 'Information Technology and Dataveillance' Commun. ACM 31,5 (May 1988) 498-512, at

Clarke R. (2008) 'You Are Where You've Been: Location Technologies' Deep Privacy Impact' Invited Keynote at a Seminar on 'Location Privacy' at the University of N.S.W., 23 July 2008, at

Forster E.M. (1909) 'The Machine Stops' Oxford & Cambridge Rev., 1909, at, accessed 8 May 2005

Foucault M. (1977) 'Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison' Peregrine, London, 1975, trans. 1977

Gibson W. (1984) 'Neuromancer' Grafton/Collins, London, 1984

Huxley A. (1932) 'Brave New World' Penguin Books, New York, 1932, 1975

Mann S. (1997) 'An historical account of the 'WearComp' and 'WearCam' inventions developed for applications in 'Personal Imaging'' Proc. ISWC, IEEE, 13-14 Oct 1997, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 66-73, at

Mann S., Nolan J. & Wellman B. (2003) 'Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments' Surveillance & Society 1, 3 (June 2003) 331-355, at

Mann S. (2009) 'Sousveillance: Wearable Computing and Citizen 'Undersight' - Watching from Below Rather Than Above' h+ Magazine, 10 Jul 2009, at

Nellis M. (2009a) 'Since 1984: Representations of Surveillance in Literary Fiction' In Goold B.J. & Neyland D. (eds) 'New Directions in Surveillance and Privacy', Willan, 2009

Nellis M. (2009b) 'Book Review of Cory Doctorow's 'Little Brother'' Surveillance & Society 6, 3 (2009), at

Orwell G. (1948) '1984' Penguin, 1948

Shaw B. (1972) 'Other Days, Other Eyes' Ace, 1972

Sprenger P. (1999) 'Sun on privacy: Get over it' Wired, 26 Jan 1999, at

Stephenson M. (1992) 'Snowcrash', Bantam Spectra, 1992

Stephenson N. (1999) 'Cryptonomicon', Avon, 1999

Sterling B. (Ed.) (1986) 'Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology' Arbor House, New York, 1986

Sterling B. (1991) 'Islands in the Net', Arbor House, 1989

Toffler A. (1971) 'Future Shock' Bantam Books, New York, 1971

Toffler A. (1981) 'The Third Wave' Bantam Books, New York, 1981

Twelve Hawks J. (2006) 'The Traveller' Corgi, 2005

Vinge V. (1981) 'True Names' Bluejay Books, 1984 (orig. published 1981), archived transcription

Vinge V. (2007) 'Rainbows End' Tor Science Fiction, 2007

Zamyatin E. (1922) 'We' Penguin, 1922, 1990. A summary is provided by John Garrard


The Wikipedia site contains summaries and links for many of the authors, genres and novels mentioned in this document

Bill Christensen's web-site identifies and documents a wide range of instances of surveillance devices depicted in the science fiction literature

Quotations on surveillance from J.G. Ballard novels, at The Ballardian Primer: Surveillance Cameras

The Internet Movie Database search on 'surveillance'


My interest in this area arose in the 1980s ...

Interactions with Bruce Sterling and David Brin on panels at several Computers, Freedom & Privacy conferences in the USA and Canada in the 1990s

My interest was re-kindled by an invitation onto a panel at the Australian Speculative Fiction Conference, Conflux, in Canberra, in October 2009.

A thread on the Surveillance & Society e-list in 2009, and thanks for contributions from ...

My thanks to Dr Evan Arthur, who provided the Latin rendition of the aphorism that seeks to sum up David Brin's thesis.

My thanks to colleagues in the surveillance research community, including ... and particularly ...

Author Affiliations

Roger Clarke is Principal of Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd, Canberra. He is also a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W., and a Visiting Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the Australian National University.

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