In the World of Total Information Awareness, “The Last Enemy” Is Us; A TV Show Good Enough to Inspire a Political Rant

11/7/08Follow @wroush

If you thought the notorious Total Information Awareness program went away when Congress eliminated funding for the Pentagon’s mass-surveillance experiment in 2003, you were misled. The program itself may have been dismantled, but as an investigation by the Wall Street Journal detailed in March, many pieces of it were simply transferred to other federal agencies, where they’re now part of a massive effort to mine U.S. residents’ e-mail messages, bank transfers, credit-card transactions, travel records, Web searches, and telephone records for signs of terrorist conspiracy. Suspects identified by this mining can be targeted by the National Security Agency’s Terrorist Surveillance Program for wiretapping and other searches without a warrant—a practice authorized by President Bush in 2002, first publicly exposed by the New York Times in 2005, and legalized by Congress in 2007.

Exactly what kind of a world are we building with these domestic spying programs—and could we unbuild it now, even if we wanted to? Those are the questions posed by a fictional-but-realistic BBC miniseries, “The Last Enemy,” that concluded this week on PBS. I highly recommend it—and if you rush, you can still watch the whole five-hour series at the PBS website (it’s available online until November 9). You can also pre-order a DVD of the series for delivery in January.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Stephen Ezard in \"The Last Enemy\"In an interesting bit of timing on PBS’s part, the series closer aired on November 2, just two days before Americans decisively turned away from the Bush-Cheney legacy and its shocking assault on civil liberties in favor of a President-elect, Barack Obama, who has worked in the Senate to rein in the Patriot Act and who promised during the campaign that he would end warrantless wiretaps. We may not know until after January 20 where an overhaul of the nation’s intelligence-gathering apparatus will rank on Obama’s priority list. But the moment is clearly ripe for a rollback of many of the abuses perpetrated by the Bush administration in the name of national security.

What could happen if democratic societies continue to sacrifice liberty for the appearance of security is the subject of “The Last Enemy,” a depressing tale set in London in the year 2011. Closed-circuit surveillance is ubiquitous (not much of a stretch, given that Britain already has 5 million closed-circuit cameras) and every citizen must carry an ID card linked to their thumbprint and iris scan (also not much of a stretch—the British parliament passed a national identity card act in 2006, and starting in 2010 everyone who applies for a passport will be issued a card and placed in a national identity register). In this near-future world, the government is in the final testing phases of an all-encompassing national intelligence database called (you guessed it) Total Information Awareness.

As the story begins, a brilliant, antisocial mathematician, Stephen Ezard, is returning from self-imposed exile in China to attend the funeral of his brother, an international aid worker supposedly killed in a roadside bombing in Afghanistan. Stephen gradually learns that refugees treated in his brother’s camp have been dying from a tainted hepatitis vaccine, and that his brother was working to expose the government’s cover-up. Stephen promptly falls in love with his brother’s widow, and is asked by the British government to evaluate—and then assist with public relations for—TIA. We soon begin to suspect that the government has invited Stephen into the program simply to keep a closer eye on him. He gets a couple of steps ahead of his minders, and figures out how to exploit the database to track down vaccine researchers who might help to untangle the conspiracy. But that leads to some nasty surprises—and I won’t give away any more of the story.

The writing and acting in “The Last Enemy” are a bit duller than what I usually expect from the BBC, but the story is well-researched and chillingly plausible. If it were shorter, I’d say that it should be mandatory viewing for high school and college civics classes. What’s most disturbing about the show’s plot is the way that Stephen’s attempts to evade TIA’s web (once he begins to learn how deep the conspiracy goes) are taken as de facto evidence that he’s a danger to national security. How often has it been said that surveillance programs are harmless, since innocent, law-abiding citizens have nothing to hide? The problem with this logic, of course, is its dark corollary—that anyone who seems to be hiding something must be guilty.

I’ve always been amazed by the British flair for technological dystopianism—just think of Orwell’s 1984, Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” and the utterly devastating “28 Days Later.” If I had to guess at an explanation for this phenomenon, I’d say that England had a front-row view as her sister industrial democracy, Germany, descended into Fascism in the 1930s and 1940s. In the aftermath, a few British authors and filmmakers have been sufficiently honest and courageous to point out related tendencies in their own society, like xenophobia, grandiosity, technological triumphalism, and a fetish for bureaucracy and authority figures.

As the Bush-Cheney era finally lifts, will Americans take an equally honest look at how 9/11 exacerbated our own none-too-latent xenophobia? Will our government come to understand that constant electronic scrutiny is itself a violation of our privacy? Not without some pushing. Yesterday, the American Civil Liberties Union published a transition plan calling on Obama to “begin repairing the damage to freedom” on day one of his presidency by, among many other things, prohibiting the National Security Agency from monitoring the communications of U.S. citizens and residents without a warrant. He will doubtless have bigger things on his mind, like preventing a depression, exiting Iraq, and stabilizing Afghanistan. But through his choice of an attorney general and his early policies on issues such as implementing a civil-liberties board to oversee the Patriot Act, Obama has the opportunity to reverse eight years of progress toward a total-surveillance state. To push through legislation that heads off new abuses in the future, he’ll need the voices of concerned citizens behind him. And if, in the end, we can’t elect leaders who will restore and respect our liberties, then perhaps we deserve to be treated like the enemy.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Joe S

    Good article on an important topic. The infringments on our privacy erodes our respectability as a nation and ultimately the economy as well.

    Technologists, business people and scientists are known for focusing more on money or on truths than on what is ethical. Witness this revealing quote by AI researcher Marvin Minsky:
    “Scientists shouldn’t have ethical responsibility for their inventions, they should be able to do what they want. You shouldn’t ask them to have the same values as other people.”
    - Marvin Minsky
    - From issue 2625 of New Scientist magazine, 13 October 2007, page 46

    Actually, I agree with that to a certain extent: specialization produces deeper benefits. But someone needs to be watching the ethical side of things, even if the technologists, business people and scientists are not. Don’t believe that you can leave it to government officials either. They often have agendas which don’t necessarily involve your best interests despite what they may say.

    I risk stating the obvious because I have met too many professionals who do not seem concerned or aware about privacy issues. If you are not going to do something, pick a group that will. http://www.eff.org is a good one.

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