Theatre Review: A Machine They’re Secretly Building


Last night I went to see a play by Proto-Theatre at the Nuffield Theatre on the Lancaster University Campus, conveniently only a few minutes from my office. The performance was called ‘A Machine They’re Secretly Building‘, a play (excuse the pun) on a quote from Edward Snowden:

“I’m willing to sacrifice [my former life] because I can’t in good conscience allow the U.S. government to destroy privacy, internet freedom and basic liberties for people around the world with this massive surveillance machine they’re secretly building
The play was really interesting, and although I knew quite a lot of the information from my previous research on the NSA, GCHQ, and the Signals Intelligence (communication and electronic intercepts and data) sharing agreement, ‘Five Eyes’. It dealt with the subject matter in a really good way, and presented it in an easy to understand format. They referred to the UKUSA agreement (the original basis for Five Eyes) as BRUSA (Britain and America), which I’d not read it as before, and raised an eyebrow.

The play followed Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) sharing from World War II, through the Cold War, to the present day, and gave a potentially dystopian view of the future. It’s basic argument was that SIGINT sharing was a good thing during WWII, and the Cold War, but has gone too far during the ‘War on Terror’.

Five Eyes surveillance areas. Image by Open Canada (

The basic assumption of ‘too far’ was that all this surveillance was unnecessary, because of statistics that show you are far more likely to be killed by falling furniture, curable diseases, and your fellow citizens than an violent Islamic Extremist. I thought this was a fair point, but did not look into whether all this intelligence sharing actually had any impact on such figures. Is it not likely that all the hard work of the worlds intelligence and security agencies, sharing and analysing data would have had brought down the likelihood of being killed by terrorists?

I know lots of people make the fair point that lots of counter-terrorism actions end up creating more terrorists, but no civilians die if the terrorist plotting their demise is actually killed before they can launch their attack. We can tease out from the legal reasoning that has come out about the killing of Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin that they were killed because they were engaged in plotting future acts of terror in the UK – their potential victims are still alive today because of that drone strike. If there was no air strike, their ‘imminent attacks‘ would have happened. From section 5.3:

The target of the air strike, Mr Reyaad Khan, was an ISIL fighter assessed to be actively engaged in planning and directing imminent armed attacks against the Unied Kingdom.


I’d never hear of INDECT before, but it was mentioned in the play as part of a dystopian future where our faces, movements, and the groups we are travelling in will be recognised and analysed by computer-linked CCTV cameras. The play neglected to mention that the INDECT system recognises:

potentially threatening situations, and gives the operator access to the video only when his attention is actually needed.

So, in fact situations might be being monitored by machines, but analysis and decisions would be made by humans. The other two strands of INDECT were also ignored by the play: Threat Detection in Computer Networks to identify the sources of child porn and trafficking in human organs; Data and Privacy Protection to use digital watermarks and crytpological algorithms to protect multimedia data.

INDECT doesn’t seem to have done anything since 2014. Perhaps it’s folded, perhaps the EU cut the research grant, perhaps it finished its research. Sounded like an interesting multi-national project bringing lots of smart people together.


Utah Data Centre

Another big part of the play was the Data Centre that has been built by the NSA on the outskirts of Bluffdale, Utah. The play portrayed this as worrying because it can store yottabytes worth of data (according to the play, one yottabyte is equivalent to every piece of data since the beginning of time until 2003), data that could be about you.

I would also share this worry if I was an American (particularly if you were drawn in by this website, which I was momentarily). Being from the UK, a Five Eyes nation, the NSA isn’t suppose to spy on me, although perhaps GCHQ could be. I don’t know, and even if they were, what could I do about it? I could follow some of the advice here, but they could probably still watch me if they wanted to.

NSA Utah Data Centre. Photo by Parker Higgins (

Overall, I really enjoyed the play. It ended on a positive note that, if we weren’t comfortable giving all our data over to governments we should do something about it, because we shouldn’t have to trade privacy for security. Although, what to do, I’m not sure. To be honest, I can’t actually imagine being spied upon in any secret way. I put almost all of my academic work online for anyone to see, and I don’t think I do anything worthy of an intrusion into my privacy by governments focussed on fighting terrorism. Besides, if an intelligence agency really wanted to know something about me, they could just ask.

A faked Utah Data Centre image from the ‘Domestic Surveillance Directorate’ (

Until next time.

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