Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Spies like us

As Christmas approaches, I think we should note that Jesus has been appearing in a new TV show produced by J.J. Abrams.

“Person of Interest,” which appears at 9 p.m. Thursdays on CBS, stars Jim Caviezel, perhaps best known for playing The Savior in “The Passion of the Christ,” a film which had a pretty good reputation until director Mel Gibson became internationally known as a drunk-driving anti-Semite and baby-momma batterer.

Jesus, or Caviezel, plays Reese, who – for the record – only had an oversized first-century beard during part of the premiere episode.

In “Person of Interest,” Jesus isn’t always watching over you, but his employer certainly is. Jesus’s boss easily taps into massive networks of surveillance cameras and cell phone transmissions – for good purposes – in a way that ought to scare us all.

The employer, played by Michael Emerson, is Finch, the architect of a post-9/11 database that draws information from close-circuit television cameras and phone calls. Based on that information, the database predicts who might be a potential terrorist threat. Development of the database was funded by the U.S. government.

Although the machine was designed to predict terrorism, it also finds out about non-terrorists who might be running into trouble in the near future. The U.S. government didn’t want to deal with the people who aren’t threats to national security, so Finch left himself a backdoor into the system to find out who else might need help.

As a 9/11 survivor who apparently was assumed dead and now walks with a limp, Finch can’t chase the bad guys and protect the good guys. So Finch picked Reese – former special military agent who can take on gangs singlehandedly – to swing fists and fire bullets into non-lethal body parts while protecting innocent people in trouble. Jesus can really kick ass, and that’s the fun part of the show.

When Finch’s machine alerts him to a new person of interest, he immediately gets on his computer and accesses all kinds of personal information, files, records, and even photos. (Note to self: change privacy settings on Facebook.)

Watching the first few episodes of “Person of Interest,” I absorbed Finch’s access and quickly took it for granted. After all, Finch and ex-Jesus are good guys. As created characters, their work is ethical and intended for righteous ends. Finch has the access to the surveillance database, so why not use it?

Of course, the U.S. expanded its surveillance of its own citizens following 9/11, and that made some Americans uncomfortable. But there I am, each Thursday evening, watching someone watch surveillance feeds, watching someone spy on Americans – for a good cause. It’s a timely issue, like the end of “The Dark Knight,” when Batman hacks the cellphone networks to find the bad guys.

Many of us probably assume that the U.S. government has pulled back from its surveillance after the death of Osama bin Laden – which makes about as much sense as Lindsay Lohan telling Playboy she has learned from her mistakes while arguably making the mistake of appearing nude on 10 pages of the magazine.

At least Lohan knew she was being photographed – well, I guess she did; we’ll never know for sure. I haven’t always been sure when I was being photographed, like the time Lohan’s fellow “Mean Girls” actress Rachel McAdams jumped my bones in the elevator of The Martinique resort hotel in Myrtle Beach. I was like, “Wait! Stop! Let’s not embarrass ourselves! There might be a hidden camera in here!” Just go with it. I had to explain the lipstick smudge to my wife somehow.

I also didn’t know when I was being photographed or video-taped during four trips to London during the past two years. Closed-circuit cameras were everywhere – not just in train stations and subways, not just on buses. In England, home country to George Orwell, author of 1984, everyone accepts that constant surveillance is a necessity in violent times.

I’m not sure if the London cameras actually deter people from stealing or vandalizing – I mean, when there’s not already a community-organized riot and arson session in progress – but there were several times when I thought twice before scratching my ass.

Who would see me scratch my ass? Pick my nose? Quickly adjust my uncomfortably situated boxers?

Would the watcher think less of me? Laugh at me? Notice that my quick, private moves were especially American in form? Or worse yet, would think they were French in form?

Maybe that’s why I will continue to watch “Person of Interest.” Maybe I want to know what I and my microbrew physique look like on close-circuit camera.

Plus, I can’t stop watching Jesus kick ass and his boss navigate high-tech surveillance networks.

So maybe Lohan has the right idea. If you can’t have privacy, you might as well make a few bucks exposing your privates.

-Colin Foote Burch
(This column originally appeared in and is re-posted here in July 2014.)

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