tv // poi // reese and carter

PoI and PRISM

Last Friday I was listening to talk radio on the way home, and finally heard the first person mention Person of Interest in regards to the NSA/PRISM data-mining (go ahead, call it, 'snooping') scandal. The host did a credible job summarizing the show and pointing out similarities, namely the fact that the Machine is watching everybody all the time. He wondered if shows like PoI might - intentionally or otherwise - work to make people feel more comfortable with the idea of the government watching our phone records and monitoring our calls and our credit cards and Internet activity and email and...

What the host didn't mention, however, because he obviously doesn't watch the show, is that in the case of PoI, the heroes of the story - the ones who take that data-mined information and save ordinary peoples' lives - are not the government. In fact, if anything, PoI portrays the government as the bad guys. They're the ones that told the main character to kill his partner, who killed Shaw's partner, who've been knocking off people left and right to try to control the Machine, and who, generally speaking, have been trying to exploit the information that the Machine provides. Heck, even organized crime has been portrayed in a more sympathetic light, at least where privacy rights are concerned.

PoI works as a show because the viewers believe that Finch, Reese and their 'inner circle' are good guys, that the information the Machine analyzes are in good hands and won't be used for the wrong reason. Also, as far as we know, it's still fiction. Here's hoping that it doesn't contribute to making people complacent about Big Brother.

I leave you with this forehead smacking quote by a senator from my own seriously screwed-up state, as reported by the New York Times. Emphasis is mine.

The defense of this practice offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, who as chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee is supposed to be preventing this sort of overreaching, was absurd. She said on Thursday that the authorities need this information in case someone might become a terrorist in the future.
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Full disclosure I: I have never watched "Person of Interest".

Full disclosure II: I work for Mordor. The government. (Not yours, but the Canadian one.)

Data mining is an iffy subject. But intriguingly, many of those who object to it would be the first to complain if someone "fell through the cracks" and committed a terrorist attack. The UK is one of the countries with the highest per capita rates of CCTV cameras on the planet, and people were complaining about lack of privacy -- until those same cameras tracked the progress of the 7/7 bombers.

In 99.98 % of cases, data mining yields nothing with regard to the activities of ordinary citizens. The search engines hit on certain terms, and move on if others don't appear. Think of it as the street cop looking over the crowd, looking for someone to do something suspicious, or the airport screeners that go "bleepbleep" when I walk through with my titanium hip. I have no issues with it.

It's the use that the data are put to that is the issue, not their collection. And that is why we have human rights protections.



But intriguingly, many of those who object to it would be the first to complain if someone "fell through the cracks" and committed a terrorist attack.

Oh, absolutely. I don't care for Obama, but I'll freely admit that if, God forbid, something happened, there would be plenty of people who would accuse his administration of not having done enough.

Think of it as the street cop looking over the crowd, looking for someone to do something suspicious

Sure, but a cop on the street needs probable cause to go up to someone and say 'spread 'em,' whereas this program is/was, apparently, monitoring EVERYTHING without court orders. Then we're told that we don't need to worry because they have standards regarding what they follow up on, but, well, those standards are SECRET.

And then there's the whole thing about absolute power and whatnot, and the fact that we're in the middle of a scandal about the IRS abusing their power when it comes to the equitable treatment of citizen groups (on one hand, and spending disgusting gobs of money on the other hand). It doesn't exactly put the populace into a trusting mood.

It's the use that the data are put to that is the issue, not their collection. And that is why we have human rights protections.

Ahh, but that's just closing the barn door after the cows are already out.
I'm not sure it's quite so clear yet where the barn door is, and where the horses have got to. ;-)

Arguably, collecting the data is not the equivalent of saying "spread 'em". It's crime prevention, not investigation. The "spread 'em" part amounts to arrest/detention (however temporary), and yes, for that you need probable cause in any civilized legal system. What I meant by "use to which the data is put."

I think the real issue is that the whole data transmission thing is moving ahead of the law, both in terms of what the law can do with it when it is used for evil after the fact, and in terms of what the law is able to do with it in terms of prevention. It's a grey zone, indeed.

Following 9/11 the balance between security interests and human rights swung very much in favour of the former, to the detriment of the latter. It's going back now.
I have a feeling that the data trawling issue is going to your Supreme Court, as well it should, in order to determine what the limits of prevention are when they run up against civil liberties and privacy rights. I'd hazard a guess that Canada's Supreme Court would agree with you. It'll be interesting to see where yours will come down.
Arguably, collecting the data is not the equivalent of saying "spread 'em". It's crime prevention, not investigation.

Well, I'll agree with the 'arguably' part ;) I think collecting information IS investigation. The cops are not allowed to go through my garbage to find out what I'm up to, or follow me around to see where I'm going, without a court order. Why should they be able to track my phone or mine my online data without abiding by the same procedure? And you're talking about doing this to millions and millions of people who are not terrorists, who have nothing to do with terrorism, but you know, according to Feinstein, they might become terrorists, so we have to watch them, and the only court involve is FISC which isn't even held to the standard of probable cause.

One of the amendments in our Bill of Rights (fourth only after protections to speech/media, arms, and quartering of troops, which tells you how much the Founders were thinking about it back in the 1790s) is the amendment against unreasonable search and seizure. It says that the government needs probable cause before it can search (or seize) a person's body, house, papers and effects. And you're exactly right, this is going to end up going to the Supreme Court, and lawyers are going to spend a lot of time arguing whether or not internet history and phone records are considered papers/effects, but I think regardless the whole PRISM program can be considered a warrantless search.
I always love a good argument. Us lawyers are basically whores -- pay us enough, and we'll argue the other side ... ;-)

I think the whole thing will ultimately turn on the sheer quantity of the data collected and sifted, and the indiscriminate nature of the "search". The search engines aren't targeting individuals, but data -- words like "jihad' (*bingo*) and the like. It's when they zero in on YOU that individual rights kick in.

But hey -- I'd be just as happy to argue that it is unreasonable search and seizure (we have that prohibition in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well, unsurprisingly). It's just that personally, I'm not as troubled by it as you obviously are.
But hey -- I'd be just as happy to argue that it is unreasonable search and seizure (we have that prohibition in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well, unsurprisingly). It's just that personally, I'm not as troubled by it as you obviously are.

I'm troubled BY the indiscriminate nature because I think that, regardless of which party is in charge at any given moment, a government that can abuse a power eventually will, especially when there's no one to give oversight and hold them accountable. A sort of 'who watches the watchers' thing. Maybe right now they're only looking for "jihad" and "bomb" and "death to America." But unlike the Machine in PoI, which is programmed to ONLY give terrorism-related data to the government, PRISM is operated by human beings. And I'm supposed to trust that they're not going to misuse the information they're collecting because... um... because they say that I should? Even the NYT called BS on that.

I also think that, as much as the media in this country loves Obama, they're very sensitive to Bill of Rights infringements, because they wouldn't exist in their present form without the 1st. So something like this, or what just came out about the government monitoring reporters, tapping their phones and whatnot, is going to get their attention, and also make it more visible to the public.
Thanks! I really wanted to call in the radio show and explain that if anything PoI is a cautionary tale about government surveillance... but I was driving. ;)
Watching some of the behind the scenes for PoI, the tech is already there. And the ability is already there. In fact, I recall the writers talking about the stuff Finch does and thinking 'this is too far out there' only to discover that no, it wasn't.

The only part that's scifi, as far as we know anyway, is the machine. And the implied sentience of that machine. It's changed it's programming on it's own (or with Reese's threat)

The Govt has been scanning international calls and mails for years. as the fiber lines come in the info is duped and then passed on and then scanned for key words and phrases.

I think the funniest part of it all was that one senator all 'can you assure me that noone has been listening to the calls of any of us(politicians)'.....implying 'ok if you listen to the public, but we're supposed to be immune ya know???'....What's good for the goose is good for the gander buddy, which means if they're gonna spy they need to spy on everyone.