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Person of Interest and The Shadow Factory

on Wed, 01/18/2012 - 00:00

“You are being watched. The government has a secret system, a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people. Crimes the government considered ‘irrelevant.’ They wouldn’t act so I decided I would. But I needed a partner. Someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You’ll never find us but victim or perpetrator, if you’re number’s up, we’ll find you.”

Thus begins the CBS drama Person of Interest, in which a billionaire computer genius and former government operative team up to prevent crimes before they take place. The information they use on their mission is secretly intercepted from an NSA spying device that not only gathers data but has been “trained” to interpret the millions of phone calls and e-mails at its disposal to detect patterns of criminal activity. While such a concept may initially appear as “science fiction,” the reality of life in the modern day world suggests that it is actually more fact than one might imagine.

“The only sci-fi part is that the government built something that worked,” Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan told The Huffington Post in October 2011. “The more I’ve been working on it, the more I’ve been reading, the more frighteningly real are some of the aspects that we’re portraying. It’s unfortunately closer to reality than anyone expects.”

The revelation that the US government secretly keeps tabs on its citizens should be of no surprise. During the 1970s, a Senate investigation into the National Security Administration uncovered evidence that the clandestine organization was indeed conducting illegal surveillance both within and outside the country. The aftereffects of the Church Committee’s proceedings led to the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which oversees the intelligence community’s wiretapping operations to ensure that their conduct is based on “probable cause” as opposed to random acts of unsuspecting intrusion by the government.

The public airing of its dirty laundry, as well as the newly-formed court, appears to have kept the NSA in line during the decades that followed, but 9/11 changed everything. “By 2008, the NSA had become the largest, most costly, and most technologically sophisticated spy organization the world has ever known,” journalist James Bamford explains in his book The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America (Doubleday, 2008). “It had also become the most intrusive, secretly filtering millions of phone calls and e-mails an hour—international and domestic—through equipment programmed to watch and listen for hundreds of thousands of names and phone numbers.”

In the pilot episode of Person of Interest, Mr. Finch tells Mr. Reese, “When the Towers came down, you were in a hotel in Mexico. I was here. I was working. Didn’t even know about the attacks until that evening. You see Mr. Reese, until that day I had spent the better part of my life making myself very rich. Somehow that money didn’t seem to amount to much.”

Finch was not the only one affected by the events of 9/11, although not necessarily in the same altruistic fashion. During the 1980s, John Poindexter served as National Security Advisor to President Ronald Reagan before being ensnared in the Iran-Contra scandal. By the year 2001, he was employed at Syntek Technologies, a small tech firm that had numerous domestic and international defense contracts. “Arriving at work in time to witness the South Tower collapse on television, Poindexter became frustrated and discouraged,” Bamford writes in The Shadow Factory. “Despite six years of hard effort, they had not been able to convince the intelligence community of the need to adopt their ideas and concepts. As most of the staff departed early for home, Poindexter, the company’s senior vice president, remained behind, thinking of how in a matter of hours the world had suddenly changed. ‘I stayed most of the day,’ he said, ‘thinking about what needed to be done.’”

The “ideas and concepts” that John Poindexter advocated were eerily similar to the “machine” built by Mr. Finch on Person of Interest. The project was named Total Information Awareness (TIA) and would have had the ability to sift through billions of surveillance data in order to connect-the-dots and spot terrorist activity before it happened. According to James Bamford, “TIA also included Scalable Social Network Analysis, which was projected to distinguish potential terrorist cells from ordinary groups of people through an analysis of various everyday activities, such as telephone calls, ATM withdrawals, and meetings; and Activity, Recognition, and Monitoring, which sought to develop computerized cameras capable of watching, recording, and learning how people act and behave—to ‘capture human activities in surveillance environments.’ In other words, the object was to develop hidden cameras to determine whether someone was acting out of the ordinary.”

New York Times columnist William Safire became aware of Poindexter’s plans and wrote a scathing column denouncing the project. Congress likewise joined in on the outrage, and Total Information Awareness quickly vanished from the government’s official “to do” list. Although a machine capable of sifting through information was deemed too intrusive, however, the Bush Administration adopted a “warrantless eavesdropping program” that bypassed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court nonetheless.

During an early flashback sequence on Person of Interest, Mr. Finch’s business partner observes a stream of data flowing through the makeshift office which served as the birthplace for the CBS drama’s infamous machine. “Direct for NSA at Fort Meade,” Finch explains. “That’s every e-mail, every phone call.” According to The Shadow Factory, such a data stream actually does exist. Following 9/11, NSA Directory Michael Hayden acquired the cooperation of the major telecommunication companies in the United States to install secret wire taps on the major hubs of their operations. “Within a year, engineers were busy installing highly secret, heavily locked rooms in key AT&T switches, among them Bridgeton, New York City, and the company’s major West Coast central office in San Francisco,” James Bamford reveals.

“Based on my understanding of the connections and equipment at issue, it appears the NSA is capable of conducting what amounts to vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the Internet—whether that be people’s e-mail, Web surfing, or any other data,” former AT&T technician Mark Kline says in The Shadow Factor. “What I saw is that everything’s flowing across the Internet to this government-controlled room. The physical apparatus gives them everything.”

While the massive amounts of data the NSA collects on average Americans mirrors the stream of information seen on Person of Interest, the actions taken after analysis of that data has a direct correlation to the CBS drama as well. During a criminal investigation, for instance, law enforcement officials have to demonstrate a high level of “probable cause” in order to acquire a court order for a wiretap or physical search. Because the intent is to arrest, prosecute and imprison US citizens, the standards are set higher than those of the NSA, who are instead attempting to discover threats from foreign governments or foreign terrorist organizations.

“The worry had always been that overeager criminal investigators, hoping to tap on a suspect with little or no probable cause, would simply apply for a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrant by showing some nebulous foreign connection—for example, that the person works for a company headquartered in London,” James Bamford explains in The Shadow Factory. “To keep the two types of eavesdropping activities—intelligence and criminal—completely separate, an artificial ‘wall’ was created. This was designed to prohibit those monitoring private conversations with much easier FISA warrants from ‘cheating’ by passing their results ‘over the transom’ to criminal investigators, who required a much tougher probable cause standard for a criminal warrant.”

On Person of Interest, Mr. Finch reveals that “there was a problem with the machine. I had built it to prevent the next 9/11 but it was seeing all sorts of crimes. So I had to teach the machine to divide the things it saw into two lists. Relevant and irrelevant. The events that would cause massive loss of life were relevant so those would be passed along to the NSA.” The irrelevant list, meanwhile, was deleted at the end of each day. Given the strict rules regarding the separation of intelligence and criminal eavesdropping, the same situation potentially exists within the actual analysis process of the NSA as information on domestic crimes inevitably fall to the wayside.

“The sad truth is all of the stuff for the most part is true,” creator Jonathan Nolan told The Huffington Post in regards to the central premise of Person of Interest. “It sounds like conspiracy theory when you tell someone that the government can turn on the microphone in your cell phone and listen to you whether you’re using it or not, but it was headline news and then everyone went back to not giving a shit. We all use these things because they’re convenient but we’re all aware they can be used against us.”

As described by James Bamford in The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA from 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America, the fictional world in which Person of Interest takes place is indeed not that far from the factual world in which we all inhabit—giving the words “you are being watched” from Mr. Finch’s soliloquy an even darker and more foreboding meaning.

Anthony Letizia (January 18, 2012)

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