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PRISM of Interest: How TV Drama Anticipated the Data-Mining News

This week's surveillance revelations may have been something you more or less assumed was going on all along, depending on how many primetime spy shows you watch.

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Giovanni Rufino / Warner Bros. Television

Emerson, right, and Amy Acker in the Person of Interest season 2 finale.

The revelations this week about the extent to which the government national-security apparatus has been data-mining phone records and Internet communications may have come as a complete shock. It may, if you’d seen the reporting on surveillance and data-mining under the PATRIOT Act since after 9/11, may have been less of a surprise, whether or not you’d guessed at the extent.

Or it may have been something you more or less assumed was going on all along, depending on how many primetime spy shows you watch.

Intelligence and surveillance have been part of TV drama since the Cold War, and newer dramas like Homeland have complicated the theme by interrogating the tradeoffs and violations that might be made in the name of security. (One fascinating thing about the entangled spy and romantic plots in Homeland is how it conveys that surveillance itself is a kind of intimate violation.)

Still, in spy stories generally, collecting data is a means to an end: it’s Sydney Bristow going incognito to discover the location of another Rimbaldi artifact in Alias, or Chloe typing furiously into a computer to ID a terrorist for 24’s Jack Bauer as he tries to find a nuclear device. But more recently we’ve seen spy stories in which data itself is the weapon, the source of ultimate power.

This idea was the premise, half-serious and half-comic, behind the spy comedy-drama Chuck, whose title character—a clerk at a big-box electronic store—became a master of espionage after downloading the contents of a massive intel database (the Intersect). The execution may have been funny, but the idea is less so now: the notion was that espionage was evolving, so that power lay not simply in the collection of massive amounts of data, but the computer-assisted ability to analyze, break down, and see patterns in it. That Chuck worked selling computer systems was no accident; the show was the merger of the themes of post-9/11 security and the idea that the geeks truly do rule the Earth.

That was also the premise, carried out much more soberly and less optimistically, in the great, short-lived AMC thriller Rubicon. That was another intel drama, but its heroes and antiheroes were not karate-chopping spies but overworked analysts crunching surveillance data for a government-contracting firm. The issue in this spy drama was not collecting spy data, but that the national-security apparatus had amassed so much of it that the trick was finding the resources and brainpower to make sense of it—a job that in this show was uncertain and rife with the possibility of mistakes, abuse, and conspiracy.

We never got the chance to find where Rubicon’s conspiracy led, as the slow-moving drama was cancelled after one season. But in 2011 CBS’s Person of Interest picked up the thread, in a format that was maybe easier for a large audience to enjoy, and that was certainly more commercially successful. Person married the concept of data-mining with the age-old CBS formula of the crime procedural: using the services of an ex-field agent, computer genius Finch (Michael Emerson) uses the results of a surveillance program he created for the government—The Machine—to prevent murders. Every day, a global ecosystem of monitors—computers, traffic cameras, security systems—collects terabyte upon terabyte of data on all of us; The Machine crunches it and spits out the names—or rather the numbers—of people it predicts are soon to be killed.

PoI’s attitude toward Panopticon culture and its tradeoffs is the most potentially fascinating of all these shows, even if the way it engages its bigger issues has been frustrating. Fitting a CBS drama, it’s about the law—or here, really, quasi-legal vigilantes—using power to achieve a definite good, saving the lives of the innocent. But are we really that comfortable with the way they do it, with the means by which they’re able to do it, or with the potential for others to use the same technology for worse ends?

Through the first season, PoI teased at the idea of The Machine as a sinister force, but it didn’t do much more than tease, atmospherically—it interlaced Jim Caviezel chasing down bad guys with ominous intercuts to street-surveillance footage of ordinary people. In the second season, it started engaging the show’s backstory—and thus, the implications of the data-mining it quasi-celebrated—more directly, and became a more interesting show. (There were flashbacks, for instance, to Finch’s old partner, who mysteriously died after resolving to let the public know that The Machine existed, which sounds all the more ominous now.) The show especially benefitted from casting Emerson, who as on Lost is excellent here at playing an enigmatic, contradictory man: someone who seems to have acted out of idealism, yet has enabled a massive intrusion on the public’s privacy while wanting to remain, in his own words, a very private person.

I’m hoping PoI’s creative team is following the news, and that it inspires them to look even harder at the implications of the chilling, fascinating idea behind their show. And I really hope the PRISM uproar seeps into Intelligence, another CBS data-mining drama, which doesn’t debut until midseason.

Here—somewhat as in Chuck, but played much more straight—the protagonist, Gabriel (Josh Holloway, also of Lost) is The Machine: an intel operative with a chip implanted in his brain that allows him to access and machine-analyze entire data networks. (Call him The Man from G.O.O.G.L.E.) The pilot visualizes his experience by placing him into 3-D dreamscapes as the details of terrorist attacks resolve into an infinitely detailed tableau. As CBS’s description of the new series says: “He can hack into any data center and access key intel in the fight to protect the United States from its enemies.”

Um, yay?

At CBS’s upfront, executives described Intelligence as The $6 Million Man, but with an upgrade: the $6 Billion Man. It’s an apt comparison; the ’70s was still warm with the flush of the Apollo program, and Lee Majors’ former astronaut Col. Steve Austin, with his bionic implants, was a testament to the national faith in the transformative power of superior hardware. Intelligence recognizes how the power has shifted to the software.

Still, though The $6 Million Man had a basically dark premise—Austin’s life was saved, sure, but he became all but government property—I don’t remember it as more than an awesome action show that launched a million lunch boxes and had all the kids at my elementary school running in slow motion while making those SHUH-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh… sound effects. Intelligence, I think, will need to be more sophisticated about its subject to work. However cool the action is, and however the PRISM and cellular-call-data stories play out, I doubt it could uncomplicatedly celebrate the ability to put all our data in to one man’s head, even a good guy, and seem credible now.

After all, the guy with the data network in his head may not be real, but the data network sure is. To paraphrase the intro to The $6 Million Man: We can build it. We have the technology. But should we be happy about it?


I just finished reading “PRISM of Interest: How TV Drama Anticipated the Data-Mining News,” in this week's issue and remembered that this appeared as a plot device in the 1979 novel “Shibumi” by Trevanian. 

“Fat Boy contained a medley of information from all the computers in the Western World, together with a certain amount of satellite-stolen data from Eastern Bloc powers. It was a blend of top-secret military information and telephone billing records; of CIA blackmail material and drivers' permits from France, of names behind numbered Swiss bank accounts and mailing lists from direct advertising companies in Australia. It contained the most delicate information, and the most mundane. If you lived in the industrialized West, Fat Boy had you. He had your credit rating, your blood type, your political history, your sexual inclinations, your medical records, your school and university performance, random samplings of your personal telephone conversations, a copy of every telegram you ever sent or received, all purchases made on credit, full military or prison records, all magazines subscribed to, all income tax records, driving licenses, fingerprints, birth certificates--all this, if you were a private citizen in whom the Mother Company had no special interest. If, however, the Mother Company or any of her input subsidiaries, like CIA, NSA, and their counterparts in the other democratic nations, took particular notice of you, then Fat Boy knew much, much more than this about you.

Programming facts into Fat Boy was the constant work of an army of mechanics and technicians, but getting useful information out of Him was a task for an artist, a person with training, touch, and inspiration. The problem lay in the fact that Fat Boy knew too much. If one scanned a given subject too shallowly he might not discover what he wanted to know. If he scanned too deeply, he would be overwhelmed with an unreadable mass of minutia: results of former urine tests, boy scout merit badges won, predictions in high school annuals, preference in brand of toilet paper. The First Assistant's unique gift was his delicate touch in asking just the right questions of Fat Boy, and of demanding response at just the right depth of scan. Experience and instinct combined tosend him after the right indices, the right permutations, the right rubrics, the right depths.”

(source: http://www.scribd.com/doc/12905667/trevanianshibumi , Pgs 18-19)


This is a fluff piece.  Why not give us the real facts regarding the current situation.  Reading other sites, Obama is losing support. Trust in him is being eroded regardless of his denials.  Is he a saint that no scandal touches him?


The line I remember best from $6 Million Dollar Man is "I'm breaking up, I'm breaking up," which is what I mutter around the house when things go splat.  Can't think why I didn't yell it out as I fell and broke my leg a couple of weeks ago.  Total waste of a good line.  All in all, however, I find myself fairly complaisant about all of this eavesdropping and data collection - even interested in it in a big data kind of way.  I suspect perhaps I've been inured to it in some way by both TV and book fiction - i.e. that in some way I've come to accept it as part of reality.  Not that that's necessarily a good thing.

Jon Stewart did a show recently in which he proclaimed that there is no longer any such thing as a secret.  He was talking about "top secret" stuff, but I don't think the concept is limited to redacted material from the CIA.  I do think that, since there's not much use stuffing that genie back in the bottle, perhaps we can concentrate our efforts on limiting how, when, where and why this material can be used. 


Why stop at fiction? There was a NOVA episode back from 2009 entitled "The Spy Factory" that documented what the NSA was/is doing.


@Screened You do realize that this piece is by Time magazine's television critic and this isn't an investigative journalism column, right? The article is about a fictional TV spy show's that have a current real-world parallel.

jponiewozik moderator

@Lucelucy Re your last point, David Simon--whose THE WIRE took its name from a police phonetap and is often outspoken against state power--interestingly wrote a blog post defending the NSA's collection of the database. More specifically, he argues that the mere collection of all this data--for use in future investigations of specific persons--is not an abuse; the abuses (if any) come in how the data are used. Anyway, here's his take:



@jponiewozik @Lucelucy I replied to this yesterday, thanking you for the link, but I don't see it showing up here.  I've shared it hither and yon.  So once again, thanks.