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Would you be on Project Insight kill list from ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’?

Apr 13, 20145 mins
Data and Information SecurityMicrosoftSecurity

Yes, now even our superheroes must fight against Big Brother surveillance.

The Captain America sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, made $92 million the weekend it debuted, 4-4-14, far exceeding the $65 million the original film grossed on its opening weekend. None of those dollars were mine, and I’m a big fan of save-the-world heroes like those featured in Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Avengers, so I finally went to see the movie. This Big Brother-type conspiracy action-adventure thriller is less of an “escape” from everyday life, and more of a reminder that even our superheroes must fight for freedom and fight against surveillance.

There were decent indicators of the flick’s themes after directors Joe and Anthony Russo were interviewed by the Washington Post. When asked if they knew how timely the movie’s theme would be, Anthony Russo replied:

The Edward Snowden thing did happen while we were shooting, but that was sort of the tip of the iceberg. All the stuff was in the ether before that. I remember right before we started our first pass on the script with the writers that’s when the New York Times article broke about the “kill list.” And it was just, wow, a Democratic president of the United States sits down with his advisers on a Tuesday morning and goes through a “kill list” and decides who they’re going to kill; then they strike that person with drones, and sometimes they kill their family, too. It’s just like, “Whoa, that’s the good guy in this world.” That was very much a very jumping off point for the moral complexity about where we are, with what the relationship between security and freedom is, where the line is drawn.

Warning, spoilers from here on.

SHIELD director Nick Fury tells Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, about a secret program dubbed Project Insight. It uses three next-generation “Helicarriers linked to a network of targeting satellites.” Once launched, the Helicarriers will “never need to come down.” The plan is to “neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.” Project Insight technology can “read a terrorist’s DNA,” to predict future threats; those people determined to be threats will be assassinated by the Helicarriers’ precision weapons that can strike to kill millions all at the same time, which supposedly can save billions of lives.

Cap points out that punishment usually comes after the crime; he said of Project Insight, “This isn’t freedom. This is fear…”

When Fury is considered a threat, locked out of Project Insight and becomes a target, he orders, “Get me off the grid!”

Later, we learn that SHIELD and the U.S. government have successfully been infiltrated by HYDRA. There’s a point in the movie where it says “our modern intelligence apparatus and our whole system of national security was invented by some of the greatest villains of the 20th Century.” Entertainment Weekly added, “In real-world terms, Winter Soldier basically says that the NSA was invented by Nazis…and that we let it happen, insisted even, giving up our freedom because we were too afraid to do anything else.”

Don’t get me wrong, I liked Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s a 70s-flavored conspiracy thriller packed with high-tech surveillance from Big Brother bad guy, a new Winter Soldier super villain and save-the-world superheroes. There’s even a little espionage, stealing encrypted files via a USB; there’s some hacking, tracking and a hat tip to whistleblowers like Edward Snowden when Black Widow, aka Natasha Romanoff, dumps classified digital dirt onto the Internet.

Depending upon your privacy politics, the film may not be an “escape.” Instead, it might serve as a reminder of how out-of-control our surveillance society is, how our lives truly have become open digital books. It’s disturbing that the so-called good guys like Fury justify the need for Project Insight by claiming “SHIELD takes the world as it is, not as we’d like to be.” In real life, there are endless lists of innocent actions, like protecting your privacy, that are “suspicious” and allegedly indicate a person is a “potential terrorist.” If such a Project Insight existed and could shoot down 20 million folks at once from above with super drones, would you be one of the dissenters on the kill list?

In reviewing the film, David Edelstein wrote on Vulture, “Imagine looking back on this decade, the dawn of the age of weaponized surveillance drones, and finding that the only harbingers of what was to come were the (middling) remake of RoboCop and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” 

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ms smith

Ms. Smith (not her real name) is a freelance writer and programmer with a special and somewhat personal interest in IT privacy and security issues. She focuses on the unique challenges of maintaining privacy and security, both for individuals and enterprises. She has worked as a journalist and has also penned many technical papers and guides covering various technologies. Smith is herself a self-described privacy and security freak.