Person of Interest: Surveillance on steroids sci-fi or fact?

One of the things many people love about science fiction is that it is often a precursor to actual science. JJ Abrams' new TV series, Person of Interest, (POI) seems to have both the cool and creepy factor going for it; we may not have heroes tapping digital data to help people, but the high-tech tools that are used in the series are much more fact than fiction.

CBS has run with the surveillance theme and launched a creepy interactive billboard campaign in New York and Los Angeles. TVologoy reported, "These signs seem like mirrors until a passerby turns to take a look. Then, the words 'Person Of Interest Identified' pop up on screen and the billboard takes your photo." The Wall Street Journal added, "The promotion involves social media — on Facebook, fans who 'like' the 'Person of Interest' page can create an individual dossier with an alias, hometown, list of known associates and other data, pulling from the person’s real posts and photos on the social-networking website."

In POI, Michael Emerson (Ben Linus from Lost) plays billionaire Mr. Finch who is the software mastermind of a "tool of unimaginable power" called "the machine." He left a "backdoor" into this government surveillance program. Jim Caviezel  (who played roles such a Jesus Christ and The Count of Monte Cristo) plays former CIA agent John Reese and reluctant hero. Together they work to identify victims / perpetrators / witnesses of violent crimes before they can happen.

Emerson told Cnet [video] he gets to play a good guy this time in a "paranoid world of high technology" that is "almost but not quite over the boundary into science fiction." Such a machine "would be even difficult for the federal government to hide, but they do," Emerson said. "And probably in real life they have" the ability to "crunch every kind of digital signal on the planet."

"We live in 1984," said POI producing director Richard J. Lewis in another Cnet interview [video]. Lewis pointed out that "we are all being looked at. We are all being listened to, every transaction we make, every time we get on subway, when we use the E-ZPass to go over the bridge, we're being tracked. We're being tracked globally by satellites, being tracked all over the map." Then Lewis spoke of facial recognition and video surveillance cameras that see in 360 degrees, or using biometrics to recognize a person's iris or identifying people by their stride.

That sort of facial recognition to identify one person out of thousands of faces is not sci-fi. We recently saw such tactics used to identify people who took part in the London riots. Another example is by 3VR which can record and analyze video in real time so government or law enforcement can quickly utilize facial recognition to find a specific face and solve crimes faster.

Even if you are yawnsville boring, that doesn't imply that your 'digital footprint' information is not being collected about you as if you were a person of interest. DHS has massive databases filled with "secret watchlists." Remember the "secret law" of the how the Patriotic Act is being interpreted that is supposed to stun and anger the American public? Do you honestly not believe that involves tracking via mobile phones? 91% of Americans carry a cell phone with them, within arm's reach 24/7, and law enforcement in 31 states are actively tapping into those phones for locational tracking purposes.

Think your mobile phone is not both blessing and curse? Think again. As far back as 1997, the government warned, "A cellular telephone can be turned into a microphone and transmitter for the purpose of listening to conversations in the vicinity of the phone." The feds have been using roving bugs since at least 2004 in order to listen in on cell phone conversations or even conversations from a nearby phone. That means even if you turn your smartphone off, or choose not to carry it with you, the feds can tap into the microphone of a nearby 'dumb' cell phone for easy eavesdropping. Regular Joes are encouraged to use "spy phones" like by Endoacustica to "protect your kids," or FlexiSpy "to catch cheating spouses," or as a cyberstalking tool. Nowadays people who don't stop and pay attention may add a "cool app" that grants permission to access the microphone or worse.

Person of Interest TV series may be fiction but "the machine" is like Wizard of Oz on steroids with an "all-seeing eye" that taps into 'real' technology that can be weaponized and turned on citizens for surveillance. It happens all around us every day in the digitized world in which we live. What would have previously taken a private investigator to amass (video), such as what friends you spend time with, your location, favorite books and movies, and your political beliefs, we now voluntarily post on social media; that private insight into people is aggregated and used as analysis to link people and events. Facebook is used for intelligence gathering;  facial recognition can be used via other social networks where you have uploaded photos. Heck, some people can hack to track down your router and knock on your door. Then there are new cars like the Leaf tracking drivers, or OnStar tracking you for profit even after you cancel your service.

I'll be watching Person of Interest, but I need not tell anyone that as even your TV viewing habits can be determined by anyone spying on smart meters. It comes on Thursdays on NBC at 9PM Eastern/8PM Central. Here are more POI photos and more behind the scenes POI videos in case you find it an interesting concept as well.

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