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Sunday, April 06, 2014

Big data, NSA, Snowden and Wikileaks go pop comic book movie pop culture

by David Atkins

I'm not a big comic book movie fan, but I was persuaded to accompany some friends yesterday to see the Captain America sequel out in theaters. The movie was a pretty run-of-the-mill comic book flick from a moviemaking, acting and script perspective, but its national security politics provided a strong contemporary statement and were of keen interest.

To get into why, spoilers will be required. So SPOILER ALERT. Read no farther if you don't want to learn plot details of the Captain America movie.

To make a long story short, the film's protagonist is our FDR-era hero who was frozen in ice for 70-odd years until present day. He's now a soldier who works for a shadowy pseudo-governmental agency acronymically called SHIELD.

It turns out that SHIELD has been compromised from the inside by a cult (the rogue Nazi villains from the first Captain America film) that wants to eliminate all possibilities of terrorism by using a big data algorithm to murder anyone likely to become a threat. Using SHIELD's NSA-style database of information combined with new death-from-the-sky aerial vehicles, their vision is near reality.

Somewhat preposterously, the big data algorithm identifies 20 million people in need of immediate killing. That's quite a false positive, even for a predictive anti-terror murder machine; the moral ambiguity would have been much more compelling if the machine had identified a few dozen. But this is a comic book film, after all.

Needless to say, our heroes rebel against SHIELD, become murder targets themselves and wind up victoriously eliminating SHIELD entirely. They dump every single state secret onto the public internet, thereby compromising even their own identities.

That's some heavy material, and an extremely interesting dynamic for a summer tentpole blockbuster. And being a summer comic book flick it doesn't leave a lot of room for nuance. On one side is an evil governmental organization using the power of Big Data to create a murderous surveillance state; on the other are our heroes who take the radical step of declassifying and publishing everything under the government's control, including the identities of secret agents. Nor does the film mince words at all about which side of the Manichean divide it stands on.

Digby and I tend to differ, I think, on the scope of matters requiring state secrecy as well as the protocols that should be in place for whistleblowing on overreach. I also believe that the use of big data in dealing with a host of issues including national security is essentially inevitable and needs to be managed rather than resisted at all costs.

That said, we can all agree using big data for national security is really creepy. The potential for its abuse is great even in benevolent hands--and we all know that when it comes to national security, the hands in control of the classified documents and the shadow agents tend to be anything but benevolent. The public has good reason to recoil from a government that eliminates personal privacy in an attempt to predict behavioral patterns in ways that violate multiple amendments in the Bill of Rights.

If forced to choose between radical transparency and creepy Big Brother, the argument is going to come down on the side of radical transparency. That's already happening in pop culture, and that's as it should be.

Ironically and counterintuitively, however, the agenda of radical transparency and the creepy "pre-crime" security state may both get their way at some point in the future. The power of big data may become so effective and pervasive that governments may begin taking "preventive" action against people who haven't even done anything wrong. Simultaneously, it may become so impossible to maintain data security against breaches that it becomes nearly impossible to maintain state secrets. In such a world, both personal and governmental privacy would be eliminated, and wars could theoretically be fought over corporate intellectual property.

That's a terrifying thought. It would also be an interesting premise for a provocative sci-fi flick.