Friday, May 11, 2012

Thoughts On... Person Of Interest

You are being watched. 
The government has a secret system: a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror, but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. 

They wouldn't act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You'll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number's up...we'll find you.

-- Intro Voice Over of Person of Interest
What would your reaction be if you found out that the government had a machine that was spying on you (and everyone else)? The point of the surveillance is to detect and prevent acts of terror. And, what if you found out that the system actually worked and had stopped many act of terrorism? What would you think? Would you be scared? Angry? Confused? Intrigued? Would you keep it a secret? Would you want to tell the world?

That's a portion of the premise of the show, Person Of Interest. The show is being told from the point of view of the creator of the Machine, and follows the effort of the creator and an associate in tracking down people who have been flagged by the Machine as either a potential victim or possible perpetrator of a crime. (The acts of terror are handled by the government.) The show has been running for almost an entire season (there's one ep left), and while I had my doubts when I heard the premise, the show's execution has been for the most part, flawless. The reason I'm writing about it today is because of the latest episode of show and how it changed my perception of the events of Person Of Interest.

Looking back on the inaugural season of POI, what I see is the slow unfolding of a particularly well crafted conspiracy. The most intriguing part is that POI keeps you on the INSIDE of the conspiracy. We, as viewers, are clued in to the hidden events and back story of the people. And it's done piecemeal over the 22 episodes aired so far. It was so smooth in its delivery of that story, that you forget to ask questions. In the latest episode, the Machine flags someone who, it turns out, HAS been asking those questions. The "client" has no clue what he's getting into, but that drive he has to find out shatters the web that POI had spun for the past 21 episodes and turns things around, forcing you to imagine what this entire operation would look like to someone on the OUTSIDE. Small threads of information, events that look normal, but don't quite add up, and then people trying first to frame you, and then to KILL you. All for something that you don't even understand. You don't even have the information to make an ATTEMPT at understanding what is going on around you!

It was an impressive shock to the established pattern of the show, and one that started me asking questions about the underlying philosophy of POI. After all, it was deceptively easy to buy into the premise of two people with extraordinary resources and skills trying to help people and operating just outside the parameters of the law. Since the show is following them, we can see the choices they make, mistakes that happen and the problems they have with the morality of their means to an end. But the questions aren't only on THEIR side of events. As someone who is being watched (within the mechanics of the show), how would you feel about the existence of that Machine? (Please don't bring up any Sky-Net references. While interesting, that's not the point of this particular post.) Would you give up privacy FOREVER, to potentially save the lives of your fellow countrymen? Would you be happy with just the ILLUSION of privacy? Would it make you feel better knowing that it was a machine and not some government spook watching you, cataloging your life, and looking through your private files?

The most compelling part of all this is that these questions are no longer as far-fetched as they would appear. Humanity may not have the tech to build this machine yet, but we will and very soon. As I mentioned in a previous post, science can do it. The question is SHOULD science do it. In my mind, it really comes down to a matter of trust. Not necessarily in the faceless monolith of "The Government", but in the individuals that make up that monolith. The human beings that are just trying to do their jobs and do what they think is right given the information & power they have. So, my dear readers, I put the question to you:

Would you trust the government to use the Machine properly?


  1. "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." -Benjamin Franklin

    I can think of few better ways to say it, and simply looking at the world around us it's an easy statement to prove. You want to travel in an airplane? First pray you aren't on the secret list that contains terrorisits, children and senators, then wait in line to be groped or pornoscanned by undertrained rent-a-cops in DHS uniforms - that aren't really cops, though they like to act as if they are, they have no power to make arrest. Want to use hardware you own in a way the manufacturer did not intend? Be ready for a lawsuit (or a raid, if you're particularly unlucky) as mucking about with that ROT13 'encrypted' data on the device is against the law, despite the fact that you 'own' it. Want to lend a friend a mp3 or ebook? Be prepared to face a lawsuit of ridiculous proportions, despite that doing the same thing with a physical object is entirely legal (and further, protected by law). The list goes on: warrantless wiretapping, online surveillence, 'cybersecurity' bills which deregulate private companies voluntarily sharing confidential customer data with government agencies...

    I think we've given up enough freedoms. I'd rather we got some back, wouldn't you?

    1. The trick with that particular quote from Benjamin Franklin is that few people actually take the time to truly understand it. What qualifies as an "essential liberty"? What makes your secrets worth more than the lives of whatever number of people who die every day of crimes that could have been prevented if the police had more information? Why are you worth more than those people?

      Secondly, we're not talking about temporary safety here. The types of threats that we face today are inconceivable by the standards of 18th century thinking. Do you think Benjamin Franklin had any inkling as to the destructive power of nuclear bomb? Not just the explosive, but the irradiation of the land afterwards. Do you think he would stand idly by cradling that precious privacy when thousands or millions were dying?

      You talk about the "secret list" of people not allowed to fly. But, you don't mention why that list was created in the first place or why it's still needed today. Where is your outrage for the hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed by individuals who hijack planes? 9/11 being one of the most recent examples.

      As for messing with hardware, who is there to protect the manufacturer when a subset of their customers use their tech to steal, or kill? Who is there to protect the rights of musicians and authors who lose out of lawfully obtainable royalties when millions of potential customers take their products without paying for them?

      For better or for worse, we live in the Information Age. While we as a society become more aware of the value of human life and quest to better understand ourselves and each other, certain truths become obsolete, while others become more powerful. You gave me a quote so here's one for you:

      "Freedom Isn't Free."
      -Colonel Walter Hitchcock

      We have soldiers giving up their families, their mental health, their bodies, and yes even their lives for this country, as well as to maintain the freedoms we both cherish so deeply. But the question now becomes: We know what our soldiers, National Guard, federal agents, Fire Fighters, and Policemen are willing to sacrifice, what will YOU sacrifice?

      "All evil needs to flourish is for good men to do nothing."
      -Edmund Burke