POSTED BY JOSHUA ROTHMANhttp://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2014/01/person-of-interest-the-tv-show-that-predicted-edward-snowden.html
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.
Ten years ago, “Person of Interest” would have seemed fanciful, an atmospheric, imaginative mashup of “Minority Report,” “Sneakers,” and “Batman.” Today, it feels like a glimpse of the future—or, worse, the present. Because the show luxuriates in the minutiae of high-tech surveillance, many of its actors have a heightened awareness of the ways in which we can be tracked, hacked, watched, profiled, investigated, and bugged. “ ‘Paranoid’ is probably the word I’d use,” the actress Amy Acker, who plays a hyperintelligent hacker named Root, said. (On a UNIX computer system, the “root” account is the most powerful.) “As soon as I get to New York,” she said, “I start looking around to see which cameras are watching.” On a break between scenes at the Williamsburg Bank Building, in Brooklyn, Michael Emerson pointed out a surveillance camera—a real one—mounted in a corner of the vaulted interior. “I doubt there’s a single point in this building that’s unobservable,” he said. (Most episodes of “Person of Interest” cut back and forth between regular footage and surveillance video, and some of the action is seen from what the script calls “MPOV”—the Machine’s point of view.) “I think about everything through the lens of ‘Person of Interest,’ ” Emerson continued. “I’ll notice if somebody leaves their cell phone on the bar when they go to the rest room, and I’ll think, You shouldn’t do that. You can be Bluejacked.” (The technical term is Bluesnarfed.) “Then I’ll think, Stop being so paranoid about that—that only happens on ‘Person of Interest.’ And then I’ll think, But maybe not!”
The Snowden disclosures, Emerson said, changed the way that he approached the show. “I don’t have to be in charge of selling this concept—this ‘fictional’ concept—to anyone anymore…. It ain’t fiction, never was, and everyone knows it now.” Finch’s “choices and sensibilities,” he said, had been “confirmed” by real life. At the same time, working on the show had changed his sense of what’s alarming about the N.S.A.: his focus had shifted from privacy to prediction. “In an abstract, data-driven way,” he said, “Finch knows the likelihood of certain behaviors. The chances that events will happen. What characteristics can be attributed to certain kinds of people.”
In some of the best MPOV sequences in “Person of Interest,” we see images of characters overlaid with predictions about what they will do. The Machine weighs factors like “motivation” and “predisposition”; when it watches surveillance footage, it superimposes a red-and-white targeting reticule over the faces of people whom it deems threatening. (The legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen, in his book “The Naked Crowd,” warns about the dangers of surveillance-generated “risk profiles,” which “ensure that different groups of individuals are treated differently in the future based on their behavior in the past.”)
Watching “Person of Interest,” you can’t help noticing how useful the show is in thinking about the future of the surveillance society. By taking the Machine’s efficacy for granted, the show lets us ask the disturbing questions with which we may soon be confronted. For example: How are we to prevent other governments, or even private companies, from doing more or less what the N.S.A. does now? (A developing arc in “Person of Interest” imagines a private intelligence firm, based outside the U.S., working on its own version of the Machine.) How are we to deal with the fact that our data might be stored forever? (In “P.O.I.,” private data is a naïve fantasy: data streams that seem secure can be easily stolen, decrypted, and combined, if not by the government then by someone else.)
The show’s executive producers, Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman, are pessimistic about our ability to extricate ourselves from the surveillance society. (Nolan co-wrote “Memento” and the “Dark Knight” films with his brother, Christopher; Plageman is a veteran of cop shows like “Cold Case” and “NYPD Blue.”) “Occasionally, we’ve been accused of writing a show that’s sort of an apologia for the surveillance state,” Nolan said. “I totally reject that. If there’s a cynicism to the show, it’s in the premise not just that this is inevitable but that it’s already happened. The science-fiction part of the show is that the Machine is accurate, but the invasion of civil liberties is not imaginary.” Something like the Machine, he predicts, will be invented eventually: “If the legacy of the Second World War was the atomic age, then what might emerge from the war on terror would be artificial intelligence.”
Nolan and Plageman tend to see surveillance as a kind of existential condition—“a crushing weight,” as Plageman puts it, “that’s just over us all of a sudden.” These days, they point out, we are always generating data about ourselves, sometimes on purpose but also in passing, as we use cell phones, swipe I.D. cards, send e-mails, and simply walk the streets. To exist in today’s world is to leave a wake of data behind you. (Think, Plageman says, about all the times that you click “I agree.”) “People are being sold this idea that a computer, as opposed to a person or entity made up of people, is what’s processing the information, and that’s somehow more palatable,” Plageman said. (“That’s why the Machine is called the Machine,” Nolan added; they wanted an anodyne name, like Gmail.) Meanwhile, Plageman continued, “algorithms are being used to predict everything in terms of our taste, in terms of what we might like. Now our government is engaged in the same sort of activity. They’re trying to predict behaviors, using all the various ways they can aggregate data.” The N.S.A.’s system might be “J. Edgar Hoover’s dream,” as Plageman puts it, but it’s also just one instance of a general principle: “The more information is available, the more people are going to try to seek it out and use it to their advantage.”
At the heart of “Person of Interest” is a tension between power and powerlessness. The show’s heroes, because of their access to the Machine, sometimes seem to have superpowers: they know where to go, whom to watch, and what to do. (“She almost feels invincible,” Amy Acker said of her character, Root. “It’s a different level of confidence, knowing that the Machine is there.”) At the same time, they’re just doing as they’re told—letting the computer point them toward the bad guys in the same way that you might let Match.com tell you whom to find attractive. Sarah Shahi, who plays a former counterterrorism operative named Samantha Shaw, said that, in some ways, the characters on “P.O.I.” are like government functionaries: “Often, they don’t quite know what the plans are.” In one of the show’s most memorable sequences, Shaw, along with Jim Caviezel’s Reese, is racing down the F.D.R. Drive, pursued by a phalanx of police cars. (The cops are crooked, like pretty much everyone with power in “Person of Interest.”) The Machine, speaking to Reese on the phone, acts like a G.P.S. guidance system, telling them to “turn right” in a hundred yards. There is no exit, so Shaw drives them through the guardrail. (“Person of Interest” being “Person of Interest,” the car crash-lands at a heliport, and they steal the helicopter.)
That scene is representative of the show’s over-all development: in the course of three seasons, the balance of power has been slowly shifting toward the Machine. “The moment we’re in,” Nolan said, “is one in which data goes from being passive—something that we avail ourselves of—to being active. It’s a moment in which the data starts to direct us. As simple as that transition is, it’s also earthshaking. Computer systems will soon begin dictating, in ever less subtle ways, the paths of our lives.” (In his own small way, Nolan has been resisting the temptation to greater information: when he and his wife were expecting their first child, they decided not to learn the sex in advance.)
Torn as the show is between technophilia and technoparanoia, it’s unclear how “Person of Interest” will end. (Recent episodes have raised the possibility of multiple, competing Machines, not just around the world but also in the U.S. government.) Nolan and Plageman didn’t have any spoilers to share, though they said they have been thinking about hypothetical endings since the series began. “Early on,” Nolan said, “when we were pitching the show, someone asked, ‘What’s the last moment?’ It was kind of a silly question—we hadn’t even made the thing yet. But I said, ‘All right, let’s say, for now, that the last moment is Finch and Reese arguing about whether to turn off the Machine.’ ” One of the executives, Nolan recalled, sat up a little straighter. Why, he asked, would anyone ever turn off the Machine, if it could save lives? “I thought, That argument … that’s why this is a good idea for a show. This massive structure that’s been built underneath us, in everything that we do, that has this capacity to change people’s lives. These Machines that we’ve built—will we ever turn them off?”