My current guilty pleasure is the techno spy thriller “Person of Interest”. This TV show originally aired on CBS, between 2011-2016, now all 103 episodes are available for binging on Netflix. It features Reese (Jim Caviezel), an ex-CIA agent and Finch (Michael Emerson), a wealthy computer programmer who combine forces to save lives by using a surveillance AI that sends them the social security numbers of people who it predicts are about to be murdered or less often commit the murder. Created by Jon Nolan, this show is basically a police procedural, overlaid with a Sci-Fi veneer. At least that was how it was written, but like all good Sci-Fi, time often turns fiction into fact.
The 2011 season’s episode “No Good Deed” features a very Edward Snowden NSA agent, who is threatening to disclose the presences of the AI and the US government’s involvement in spying on America. This episode aired two years before Snowden disclosed the breath of the NSA spying efforts, via Wikileaks. I have to wonder if in that two-year interval, if Snowden was watching this show.
The Machine, as the AI is called, has access to all surveillance throughout the country, but mostly contends itself with where the L-train goes. Its presences is visualized via a collage of CCTV feeds, overlaid with tracking cursors on all the people in the scene. Originally, these voyeuristic collages served as a segue between commercial breaks, when the show was still airing on CBS. On Netflix, with no more ads, their presence soon becomes more of an annoyance.
Surveillance is a central theme in this show. In order to protect each episode’s person of interest, the first step is always bugging them. Once bugged, every conversation is then recorded and is often used as incriminating evidence. I am reminded of this summer’s dustup where former Whitehouse aid Omarosa surreptitiously recorded her former colleagues and then leaked those recordings.
We are now living in a surveillance state. The ubiquitous presence of cellphones that can act like electronic leashes makes us parties to our own monitoring. The tradecraft that is routinely demonstrated in this show gives one a heads-up on what is going on. We are all being watched now, all of the time.