On the delicate matter of having every minute of our private lives monitored by cameras and computers these days, it could be fairly said we’re sending at least one mixed signal.
After the latest WikiLeaks reveal about government hacking, the average citizen likely feels even less happy about callous, cold-blooded government or corporate entities keeping tabs on what we do and with whom we do it.
Except we then turn on a fistful of popular TV dramas where uber data collection increasingly becomes our firewall of salvation. It’s what the good guys, the guys we like, use to beat the bad guys.
Most of us don’t routinely confuse TV drama with real life. But the fact we often applaud relentless surveillance on TV shows while resisting it in our real lives suggests we’re at best a little schizophrenic on the subject.
Or that we want it both ways.
Last week’s WikiLeaks document drop mostly confirmed what even people with low levels of paranoia have accepted for years: Big Brother is not just watching, but upgrading to the highest-power binoculars he can find.
That the CIA operates this way should come as no big surprise in a country where more than half the adult citizenry uses Facebook, which reaps billions by collecting and selling the personal data we spill in casual reports on our lives, jobs, kids and shopping habits.
Facebook aside, agencies like the CIA will tell you they collect this data to keep us safe. If that means sneaking into someone’s phone through an app or turning a Smart TV into a listening device to identify the handful of truly bad guys out there, that’s a price they’d argue most Americans don’t mind paying.
A strange-bedfellows coalition of ACLU leftists and government-averse conservatives has consistently disagreed. The real question may be whether people in the “let ‘em listen, I have nothing to hide” school start thinking, “Y’know, it really ain’t nobody’s business.”
On TV, in any case, it is.
Television has developed a cottage industry with shows where bad guys, usually Middle Eastern terrorists, plot ultra-violent acts to cripple and destabilize America.
These bad guys scored their biggest win on ABC’s Designated Survivor, where so-far unseen terrorists blew up the Capitol during a State of the Union address and killed almost the whole government.
Other bad-guy cells recently exploded a major suicide bomb on Showtime’s Homeland and blew a big hole in New York’s George Washington Bridge on Fox’s 24: Legacy.
These bad dudes, not all of them men, are serious.
What usually stands between them and us is a small cadre of government or quasi-government agents like Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison on Homeland or Corey Hawkins’s Eric Carter on 24: Legacy.
And, almost always, a computer geek accomplice, some slight man or woman who with a half-dozen keystrokes can find out almost anything about anybody.
Eric, for instance, has Andy Shalowitz (Dan Bucatinsky), who is cyber-kin to the geek likes of Aram Mojtabai (Amir Arison) on NBC’s The Blacklist and Chuck Russink (Jake Epstein) on Designated Survivor.
On CBS’s Scorpion, a Bad News Bears group of neurotic geniuses save the world every week by hacking into almost any database anywhere. USA’s Mr. Robot rests on the ability of Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek) and his pals to find what they aren’t supposed to find.
Fox’s APB postulates that a bunch of trained data collection and aggregation experts can equal or outperform a conventional police squad. APB takes some DNA from CBS’s now-concluded Person of Interest, a godfather geek show in which Harold Finch (Michael Emerson) proved through a computer called The Machine that if you merely scoop up all existing data, you’ve got pretty much everything on everybody.
TV shows that incorporate hacking or intensive data collection don’t all deliver a single message. Some embrace the game. Others are wary of it. Some warn that it could be dangerous and many acknowledge that if good guys can employ data, so can bad guys.
But they share at least one central premise. With the data that’s already out there in some computer, a smart geek can take a blurry picture of half a face and within minutes tell you what this person had for breakfast and every associate with whom he or she had ever exchanged as much as hello.
On TV, all this data constitutes a weapon without which we’d be significantly more vulnerable.
The geek doesn’t exactly save the day. But without the geek, the day couldn’t be saved.
So every time it happens, we viewers are prompted to mouth an implicit thank-you that this often personal, private and sensitive data was collected in the first place – because on TV, at least, it is keeping us safe.
Even if we get to breakfast tomorrow morning and fleetingly wonder if the toaster is secure.