Prism and Pills: in the middle of current affairs

11 Jun 2013

Person of Interest

Two real world things came up this week, both of which speak immediately to our research - and our research speaks back, writes Liesbet van Zoonen.

The reach and depth of PRISM, the US government’s tapping, monitoring and data-mining programme revealed this week, are beyond an ordinary person’s imagination - unless you happen to be a fan of Person of Interest, a current weekly US TV drama. In the US the second season has just finished, the UK is in the middle of the first one. The story is about the machine, who (it is a thoroughly humanized entity in the story) spits out social security numbers on a daily basis, of people who either will be perpetrators or victims of crime/terrorism. Two heroes jump in to prevent this and make the world (only New York, in fact) safe. This delivers a lot of suspense, some humour and some silliness, but the two main actors are mostly a joy to watch.

Every week, POI starts ominously with a voice over saying “You are being watched. The government has a secret system.” Of course, the producers did not think up their all-seeing machine themselves, but developed the narrative on the basis of real life surveillance practices. Art imitates life, and life imitates art, in an ongoing circle. One of the funnier quips in the series is when Harold, who built the machine, explains to his heavy-hand John Reese how the machine gets its information, talking about “diving into that swamp of indiscretion called social media”. “Are you saying you invented Facebook, Harold?”

Harold does not doubt the machine, but he does question the ethics of the government people who abuse it; they are in fact lethal adversaries, killing everyone who knows about the existence of the machine…  If you know a little about science fiction, you can predict that in the series the machine is going to develop a life and a mind of its own, and then it is likely to be, in the end, destroyed by the last human standing, who is likely to be John Reese, the action man played by the übersexy Jim Caviezel.

But that is for the third season. Humanity always wins, at least in the dramatized versions of these issues. In the real world of the Prisms, the Googles and the Facebooks, the outcomes are less predictable.

Less spectacular and shocking but again right in the middle of premediation was an interview at the 11th All things Digital conference, with the R&D director for Motorola, Regina Dugan. She is also the former DARPA head, supposedly one of the agencies involved in the PRISM program. Ms Dugan has a vision for the future, and that is that our ID-cards, our pincodes and other authenticators become edible. Like you take a vitamin pill each day, you swallow your authentication pill, and you don’t have to identify yourself anymore; machines will scan your pill. This scenario is familiar from the British series The Last Enemy, where an evil government experiments with identification fluids injected into people for surveillance purposes. In this series, too, government and corporate power in concert know everything there is to know about us.

Another nifty little thing that Ms Dugan wants Motorola to take further is the electronic tattoo. A permanent or removable smart marker on your skin, that, like the authentication pill, will identify you when screened. We would advise Ms Dugan to stop both experiments, because here, in the UK, people detest this kind of stuff. At least that is what comes out of our survey; they find implants (and by extension pills) only acceptable for medical purposes, not for authentication. Chipping is for animals, they say, not for people. And smart tattoos are ugly, despicable and bad taste - and worse, they remind people of concentration camps. Would Ms. Dugan not understand that? Of course she would, but given the publicity she created by dusting off some extreme vision, she did receive a lot of attention for Motorola. Their marketing people will be happy, for sure.