June 17, 2013

The NSA and the "Machine"


On Weekend Edition Sunday (6/16/2013), Rachel Martin asked Joel Brenner, former senior counsel at the National Security Agency, what happens when the NSA "inadvertently discovers something suspicious" about an American citizen during its data mining activities.

Brenner answered that unless the information has foreign intelligence value, the analyst "forgets [he] ever saw it," the only exception being an "imminent threat to life or property," and he emphasized "a really imminent threat." Otherwise the intel is "discarded."

That is exactly the premise of Person of Interest. As Mr. Finch intones in the opening voice-over (written in 2011 by creator and producer Jonathan Nolan):

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, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn't act, so I decided I would.

In the real world, Mr. Finch's "Machine" would have to approach the size of the NSA's $1.5 billion, million square-foot Utah Data Center. And as it turns out, at the end of the 2012 season, we learned that the last known location of the "Machine" was on a train headed for Utah.


Though like Jane in Speaker for the Dead, it'd make more sense for the "Machine" to eventually infuse itself throughout the entire Internet, leaving its mainframe shell behind. Anybody who thinks they've found it will discover there's no longer any "there" there.

Hmm. So what does Jonathan Nolan know and when did he know it?

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