I just finished watching the five episodes of the BBC miniseries The Last Enemy. Ann had recommended it because it is about computers and privacy and also because Benedict Cumberbatch (of recent Sherlock Holmes fame) is the star. I mostly liked the series but there were a couple of things that really bothered me about it.
The plot begins when Stephen Ezard (played by Cumberbatch) returns home to England after living in China for four years. He’s coming home to attend the funeral of his brother Michael, an aid worker who was killed in a mine explosion in some Middle Eastern desert. Ezard is a mathematical genius who went to China to be able to work without all the distractions of life in England. He is a germaphobe (at least in the first episode–that particular personality trait disappears once the plot no longer needs it) who is horrified by the SARS-like infections that seem to be running rampant on the plane and throughout London. After his brother’s funeral, Stephen goes to Michael’s apartment and discovers that Michael was married to a woman who was not at the funeral and who appears to be in hiding. She’s a doctor who is taking care of a woman who is dying from some SARS-like infection–and that woman is in Michael’s apartment. Despite his germaphobia, Stephen immediately has sex (in this germ-infected apartment) with his brother’s widow.
Meanwhile, Stephen’s ex-girlfriend is an MP who is trying to push through legislation that would allow the use of a program called Total Information Awareness (TIA). TIA is already largely in place but the people of England are not happy about it. So Ezard is recruited as a “famous” apolitical mathematician who will look at the program and sell it to the public. What is TIA? It’s a big database that collects all kinds of electronic information. Every credit card purchase, building entry with an id card, video from street cameras, and so on is stored in this database. The idea is that by sifting through this information, looking for certain patterns, English authorities will be able to find terrorists before they strike. The interesting thing about this idea is that it isn’t fiction. In 2002, the US government created the Information Awareness Office in an attempt to create a TIA system. The project was defunded in 2003 because of the public outcry. At the time, I was concerned about the project both as a citizen with rights that would potentially be threatened and as a computer scientist critical of the idea that we could actually find the patterns necessary to stop terrorism.
This is where the plot of The Last Enemy became problematic for me. Michael’s widow, Yassim, who is now Stephen’s lover, disappears. Stephen takes the job as spokesperson for TIA primarily so he’ll have access to a system that will allow him to track Yassim. We see many scenes of him sitting for hours and hours wading through data with the help of the TIA computer system. At one point, he tracks the car that Yassim had been riding in by looking for video footage taken by street surveillance cameras and finding the license plate of the car in the video. This is completely unrealistic and one of the main reasons that, with our current technology, a TIA system will never work. We don’t yet have the tools to wade through the massive amounts of irrelevant data to find only the data we’re interested in. And when that data comes in the form of photos or video, we don’t really have quick, efficient electronic means of searching the visual data for useful information. Since so much of the plot of The Last Enemy hinges on Stephen finding these “needles in a haystack” in a timely manner, I had a difficult time suspending my disbelief. The problem is that it is very difficult to find relevant information in the midst of huge amounts of irrelevant information. Making this kind of meaning is one of the open problems of current information technology research.
The second major problem that I had with the plot of this series has to do with Stephen as a brilliant mathematician and computer expert not understanding that his electronic tracks within the system would be easy to follow. He makes no attempt to cover those tracks and so as soon as he logs off, his pursuers log on behind him and look at everything he looked at. And many major plot points hinge on his pursuers knowing what he knows. He doesn’t even take minimal steps to cover his tracks and then he seems surprised that others have followed him. This is completely unrealistic if he really is the brilliant computer expert he would need to be in order for the government to hire him in this capacity.
I won’t ruin the surprises of the rest of the plot of this series. But let’s say that much of the premise seems pretty realistic to me, like we’re not too far off from some of these issues coming up for consideration soon. For that reason, I recommend the series, despite the problems I saw and despite the unbelievable melodrama that arises as a result of Stephen’s relationship with his brother’s widow. There is a particularly laughable scene between the two of them when she tries to teach him how to draw blood by allowing him to practice on her. It’s supposed to be erotic, which is weird enough given the danger they’re in at that point, but the dialog is so bad that I laughed out loud. Despite these problems, the series explores enough interesting questions that I kept watching, wanting to know how the ethical questions would be resolved.