You Are Being Watched

Investigate 12 frightening, real-life surveillance technologies that could easily be found in sci-fi novels.

You Are Being Watched

It’s true.

From local police departments to the highest legions of national security agencies, governments are using surveillance technologies to fight crime, terrorism, and war. You would expect to read about such technological gadgetry in the latest Suzanne Collins dystopian novel, Ian Fleming spy story, or a sci-fi thriller a la Cory Doctorow. But, actually, it’s happening right outside (or inside) your own home.

YA author Oisin McGann, an Irishman who’s been entertaining youthful readers with his range of sci-fi and dystopian-future fantasies since the early 2000s, explores exactly how surveillance in the wrong (or even the right) hands can run amok in his techno-thrillers Rat Runners and Strangled Silence. Like the examples above, all of the technology central to these two books currently exists, though it may or may not be used to the extremes the author describes. Herewith, the (somewhat frightening) truth about that equipment.


1. Eyesee Mannequins

  • Cameras fitted in the eyes of store mannequins can record customer age, gender and race.
  • Originally intended to identify shoplifters, they are now being used to record customer demographics and shopping preferences.

2. “Touchless” Fingerprint Monitor

  • The same technology that allows mobile fingerprint capture for phones, biometric sensors can collect fingerprints at distances of two inches to two meters.
  • Allows security personnel to check identities from safe distances and allows identification and verification for building entrance security.

3. Thermal Imaging Cameras

  • Tiny thermal imaging cameras that monitor pulse rates and facial expressions and pick up stress signals in people. With the ability to scan a roomful of people, with the cameras that can be worn on a uniform, data is being collected indiscriminately.
  • “Hyperspectral imaging” is designed to indicate high stress levels that could possibly relate to someone about to commit a crime or an act of terrorism.

4. Online Games

  • U.S. and British spy agencies use World of Warcraft and Second Life to monitor suspects and collect data on the players.
  • Agencies believed the games provided an opportunity to identify approach and locate potential terrorists.

5. Smart Appliances

  • The CIA admitted that “smart” appliances, which are connected to the Internet could be used to bug Americans’ homes when they are identified as “persons of interest.”
  • A huge data center built by the NSA is reportedly being used to house incoming data, which is mined via the same wiretapping methods the NSA uses for domestic communications.

6. Spyware on Laptops

  • U.S. government agencies (NSA/CIA/FBI) have intercepted laptops purchased online in order to install spyware on the machines.
  • U.S. intelligence services use the spyware to track its targets’ habits based on their digital footprints.

7. Offline Laptop Emissions

  • Hackers can measure side-channel emissions from offline laptops and phones from several feet away using antennas, microphones, or fake battery chargers.
  • The NSA inserted tiny circuit boards into 100,000 computers and used the devices to transmit data through radio waves while the computers were not connected to the Internet.

8. Laser Microphones

  • A device that uses a laser beam to detect sound vibrations in a distant object, used to eavesdrop with minimal chance of exposure.
  • This technology may have been used to find Osama Bin Laden. There was visual intelligence gathered to determine how many people had been seen within the compound, and then laser microphones were used to demonstrate that there was someone else inside the building that had not been seen.

9. Wide Area Persistent Surveillance

  • A camera that provides detailed video collecting “pattern-of-life” data and tracking individuals inside an area up to 36 square miles.
  • Manned aircraft, drones, blimps, and aerostats persistently loiter and record video with enough detail to track individual pedestrians, vehicles, or other objects of interest.

10. Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System

  • An advanced camera system that uses hundreds of cell phone cameras in a mosaic to video and auto-track every moving object within a 36-square-mile area.
  • Floating overhead for months at a time, it tracks every moving person and vehicle and chronographs their movements allowing investigators to rewind the footage and watch the activities of anyone they select within the footage.

11. Next Generation Identification (NGI)

  • The FBI’s billion-dollar program that will add facial scans and other biometrics to the existing database of 137 million fingerprints.
  • Currently the FBI are only including “mug shots,” images collected by law enforcement officers, in the data. However, there is nothing stopping them from limiting these images to mug shots.

12. Human Microchip Implants

  • A tiny chip implanted beneath the skin typically contains a unique ID number that can be linked to information contained in an external database, such as personal identification, medical history, medications, allergies, and contact information.
  • Theoretically, a GPS-enabled implantable chip could conceivably allow authorities to locate missing persons, criminals, or fugitives.

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