Pop culture

Quiz: Spy thriller, television show, or real-life NSA surveillance program?

Nov. 1, 2013 at 9:55 AM ET

Do recent revelations about the NSA’s surveillance programs have you spooked that Big Brother is watching? You’re not alone. Decades of movies, television shows, and Hollywood espionage flicks have fed our paranoid fantasies when it comes to fears that the government might be listening in on our phone calls, tracking our movements, perusing our sexts, and rifling through our emails. Even President Obama said in June that professed NSA leaker Edward Snowden’s flight from the U.S. had all the plot points of a summer spy thriller.

IMAGE: World War Z
Jaap Buitendijk
In the book and movie "World War Z," the first mention of the zombie epidemic comes thanks to a software decryption program spying on Chinese email. Brad Pitt stars as the former UN official who fights the epidemic.

Test yourself. Can you sort out the fact from the fiction in the high-tech cloak-and-dagger scenarios outlined below?

A 'muscular' development
1. A national intelligence agency secretly breaks in to the main communication links at two major technology companies, positioning itself to collect information at will from millions of user accounts. But agency sources claim they're only looking at foreign data, filtering out anything with an American area code. One program is code-named "MUSCULAR." Fact or fiction?

A: Fact, according to this NBC News story.

Is that a code word for war?
2. An intelligence service using a software decryption program discovers that an Asian country is hiding a new viral outbreak, but the details are so horrific that the decoders believe the talk of illness must be code for a new weapons system or ultrasecret war plan. Fact or fiction?

A: Fiction. It happens in Max Brooks' "World War Z," a novel made into a movie starring Brad Pitt, and the virus is creating zombies.

Help us, rebel hacker, you're our only hope
3. Intelligence officers enlist an on-the-run hacker to steal a black box capable of breaking encryption on almost all computer systems, which the agency can then use to spy on other agencies. Fact or fiction?

A: Fiction. It was the central plot of the 1992 movie "Sneakers," starring Robert Redford.

IMAGE: Sneakers
The 1992 film "Sneakers" involved complicated computer hacking and espionage.

We're shocked, shocked about this
4. The nation's top intelligence official confirms they have been monitoring the phone calls of foreign leaders for years, and cites the false shock over gambling in the movie "Casablanca" to suggest international outrage is disingenuous. Fact or fiction?

A: Fact. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper cited the film when speaking to Congress, saying, "'My God, there's gambling going on here?' It's the same kind of thing," he said.

Little pitchers have big ears
5. It's revealed that a government agency has access to a program it calls XKeyscore, which can track Americans' email and online chat in real time. Fact or fiction?

A: Fact. According to information NSA leaker Edward Snowden shared with the U.K. Guardian, the program gathers data from across the Internet which can later be searched for names, phone numbers, keywords and more.

Interior motives
6. A NATO monitoring facility observes the troubling activities of a scientist and then enlists a British agent to implant a homing device inside the body of the scientist's co-worker. Fact or fiction?

A. Fiction. The "scientist" is Dr. Evil, the "British agent" Austin Powers, and the "co-worker" is Dr. Evil's henchman Fat Bastard, in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me." You don't even want to know how Fat Bastard ejects the homing device from his body. Yeah, baby.