I love it when Person of Interest manages to deliver moral commentary for the internet age in the middle of a crazy action story. This week, our number is a douchebag entrepreneur who sells people's private data for money. His presence allows the Machine Gang to explore how surveillance doesn't have to destroy privacy.
Shaw is back in the picture this week, working and snarking (and eating) alongside Reese on the new case. I love that one of the little quirks of Shaw's character is that she's always wolfing down food — in between missions where she dresses to the nines to infiltrate LifeTrace, the company run by our endangered Douchebag.
LifeTrace's mission is to sell personal information to people who want to find long-lost relatives or whatever. But the way LifeTrace really makes money is by selling all that personal data to private companies and the government, who will use it for creepy marketing and spy shit.
Douchebag tells his potential business partners that there are no privacy concerns here. He's put up his own personal data on the LifeTrace site, he says, and the kind of people who complain about privacy are "probably the ones trying to hide something." Sounds familiar. In fact, this is the exact kind of language we've heard governments use to justify things like the NSA's surveillance programs.
As we quickly learn, there are a lot of people who are seriously pissed off at Douchebag. A class action suit against the company has been buried, leaving behind a lot of angry people — especially the family of a woman whose stalker ex-boyfriend found her via LifeTrace, then murdered her. Adding insult to injury, this was after she begged the company to remove her address from their database because she knew the ex was using the service to stalk her.
But the real reason why Douchebag's number has come up is that a mysterious organization has been sending anonymous packages to people involved in that class action suit. The packages contain information about Douchebag — his affair, his arrest record — that could damage his stellar reputation.
In one great scene, Douchebag throws a big anniversary party for his wife (which Reese and Shaw have snuck into), and discovers way too late that the anonymous adversary has hacked his cheesy anniversary DVD. In between pictures of Douchebag and his wife partying in various expensive locales, we begin to see a sex tape of Douchebag fucking some random lady as the word LIES appears on screen. The message is clear: Douchebag is invading other people's privacy, and now his will be invaded, too.
The best part of the episode is that we never quite know for sure if Douchebag is the victim or perpetrator. As the episode draws to a close, he's finally confronted by one of the people who has been sending the anonymous packages. The guy — who has been identified as "anonymous" so many times that I think we can just call him Anonymous — been pretending to be an executive at one of LifeTrace's potential partner companies. And he tells Douchebag how his privacy-invading schemes are going to stop now. With this bullet to the head.
This is just the first we're hearing from Anonymous, but as Finch notes, it's probably not the last. We've got a fascinating new adversary in town — one that shares a lot of ideals with privacy-obsessed Finch himself.
Anonymous and LifeTrace also allow Finch to articulate some of the values we've seen explored over the past two seasons on Person of Interest. There's a big difference between what LifeTrace does, and the surveillance done by Finch's benevolent Machine. Angrily, Finch explains that the Machine gathers information but never shares it with anyone — it only releases the numbers. LifeTrace, on the other hand, sells data to anyone.
The argument that Finch is making reminds me a lot of what I've heard Google representatives say about Gmail, which serves up ads based on what you've written in your mail. What Google has said is that only machines and algorithms are reading your mail, and picking those ads, so it's not really an invasion of your privacy. There is no person reading that mail. It's just a machine that spits out ads. Similarly, the Machine is reading everything that we do, everywhere, every day. But it only looks for patterns, and spits out numbers when there's a problem brewing.
Do you buy it? I sort of buy it, though I still think it's easy to argue that the Machine is invading people's privacy. The main thing is that Person of Interest is doing some interesting storytelling here about how we define privacy in an age of ubiquitous surveillance and artificial intelligence. What does it mean to fight for privacy? Finch believes that's what he's doing, by entrusting personal data only to the benevolent Machine. Anonymous believes that pranks (and, eventually, murder) are the only way to force privacy-eating companies to stop. And meanwhile, in real life, people like NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and the company Lavabit are trying to protect people's privacy by openly defying the government.
We live in a bizarre time, which calls for new kinds of stories and morality tales.
Of course Person of Interest never forgets about the old morality tales, too. That's why we dipped briefly into Carter's storyline to find out that HR is onto her — they know she suspects something more was going on in Cal's death. And she's gotten a bright-eyed new partner to work the beat with her, who specifically chose her because he likes the fact that she fights against police corruption. I'm glad she's got a justice-loving sidekick.
With Anonymous as a possible new adversary, this season is looking like a slam dunk. I'm looking forward to more debates over privacy, and how to protect it, in the months to come.