The Real Government Data-Mining Program Behind the Machine on Person of Interest

The show's executive producers tell TIME about their research into surveillance—and what they predict for the future

  • Share
  • Read Later
Giovanni Rufino / Warner Bros. Television / CBS

Michael Emerson as Finch on 'Person of Interest'

Last week, when the news broke about the extent of secret government data-mining in the U.S., TIME’s James Poniewozik reminded TV viewers where why this all sounded familiar: the real-life PRISM program is eerily similar to the “Machine” data-mining program on the CBS drama Person of Interest.

We caught up with Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan and executive producer Greg Plageman to get their take on what they said was a completely unsurprising development.

“We already started printing up t-shirts for Comic-Con that say Toldja!” jokes Plageman. (Sorry, fans: no such shirts actually exist.)

Part of the reason for this lack of surprise is that the Machine has roots in reality. Nolan used Shane Harris’ 2011 book The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State (“nobody who has read that book is going to be surprised [by PRISM],” he says) as well as consultations with former NSA, CIA and technology workers to come up with what would eventually take shape as the Machine. As for real-world analogs, he points to a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program called “Total Information Awareness” that was an attempt to build something like PRISM. Congressional outcry over privacy concerns killed the program a decade ago but, Nolan says, that only drove the data-mining idea into more secretive realms of government. (He’s got support on that idea: there’s an in-depth PBS Frontline investigation that addresses the cause and effect there.)

Greg Plageman and Jonathan Nolan

Alexandra Wyman / WireImage / Getty Images

‘Person of Interest’ Executive Producers Greg Plageman and Jonathan Nolan at The Paley Center for Media on May 1, 2012, in Beverly Hills, Calif.

But the genesis of the Machine goes back even further. Nolan says that he was first inspired by real-life experience with surveillance: as a child in the U.K., he noticed the closed-circuit television (CCTV) security cameras that were far more ubiquitous in that country than in the United States. Nolan also realized, however, that there was no way anyone could possibly be watching all the cameras all the time. Following September 11, he began to notice that CCTV cameras were popping up more in the U.S., but the same problem presented itself. With so much data, the only way to process it would be automation. Hence, the Machine.

When he was pitching the show, he used the example of Google‘s Gmail: “The feature that shocked most people when it came out were the ads based on what you were writing about,” he says, “but that very quickly stopped bothering anybody because your e-mails aren’t being read by people. They’re being read by a machine.”

Our indifference about computers having our data puzzles Plageman, who imagines, in his show, much greater public outcry should the existence of the Machine ever be revealed. So, now that the PoI producers know their science-fiction ideas aren’t so far from reality, what do they advise us to watch out for in the future?

“We’re trying to keep the show five minutes in the future but it got out in front of us a little bit,” says Plageman. “It would be interesting if there were ever any organized resistance.”

As for Nolan, he says the show didn’t originally take into consideration the plummeting cost of data storage, which means that all the information gathered can be kept indefinitely, and that storage issues could be central in the future. He jokes that that will eventually mean a person can just call up the NSA to get them to settle a spousal argument about what someone said six months ago, but that’s not where his real hopes lie.

“It’s a strange new world that we’ve entered into, beyond even what we’ve talked about in the show,” says Nolan. “Having been granted the power of prophecy, I’m going to root for jet packs.”

(MOREPRISM Speculation and The Lord of the Rings: The ‘Palantir’ Connection)