Monday, January 20, 2014

'Person of Interest': The TV Show That Predicted Edward Snowden

Person of Interest (TV series)

The morning of June 9, 2013, was surreal for the writers of "Person of Interest," the science-fictional CBS drama about government surveillance. Sixteen months earlier, they had written an episode about an N.S.A. whistle-blower - a fresh-faced, thirty-three-year-old analyst named Henry Peck. When Peck discovers that his agency is conducting "illegal surveillance on a massive scale," he sets up a meeting with a journalist, and soon finds himself evading a squad of government assassins. ("Our own government has been spying on us," he says, "and they're trying to kill me to cover it up!") The episode, called "No Good Deed," had aired in May, 2012.

Now, more than a year later, it turned out that there was a real N.S.A. whistle-blower: Edward Snowden. Like the fictional Peck, Snowden had a youthful face, a swoop of brown hair, and an idealistic streak that seemed at odds with his job at a spy agency. "We all came into work having read the Guardian article," Amanda Segel, a writer and co-executive producer, recalled, "and we realized we had actually done an episode that mirrored this very real story in Season 1." The writers spent the morning adjusting to the idea that their "grounded sci-fi" show had somehow become, as Segel put it, "more real."

In the Guardian article, Snowden said that he couldn't, in good conscience, "allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom, and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they're secretly building." Since its première, in 2011, "Person of Interest" (which airs on Tuesdays at 10 P.M.) has taken the idea of a surveillance machine literally: in the world of the show, the government has built a vast, artificially intelligent computer system called the Machine, which reads every e-mail, listens to every phone call, and watches every CCTV camera. Flawlessly, and without human intervention, the Machine provides the N.S.A. and the C.I.A. with the identities of terrorist plotters around the world. But because it sees everything - it reads the e-mails not only of terrorists but also of regular citizens - the Machine can predict when ordinary people are planning violent crimes. The government ignores these predictions, and it falls to Harold Finch (Michael Emerson), the reclusive computer genius who invented the Machine, to respond. In partnership with a former Special Operations soldier named John Reese (Jim Caviezel), Finch leads a vigilante team of hackers, cops, and former Special Ops personnel to stop the crimes before they happen.

The show's cleverest twist is the Machine's off-kilter respect for civil liberties. Programmed never to divulge personal information about its surveillance targets, the Machine dispenses only their Social Security numbers. (The show's creators got the idea from the book "The Watchers," a history of N.S.A. surveillance by the journalist Shane Harris, which describes how John Poindexter, the head of the Total Information Awareness program, envisioned a Machine-like system equipped with a module that would hide the identities of surveillees from intelligence analysts, representing them only with numerical codes.) Thanks to the Machine's probity, it's unclear at the beginning of most episodes whether the person of the week is "the victim" or "the perpetrator"; all we know is that he or she is about to be involved in something bad. As a result, everyone must be equally surveilled. Much of the show's energy derives from this ambiguous setup. Even as you root for the heroes, you're unsettled by the surveillance society that they represent. (They're unsettled, too. "We probably shouldn't have built it," Finch admits, allowing that the Machine might be a "beautiful" but "terrible" invention.) In many ways, "Person of Interest" is a show about atonement. {Read on New Yorker}