Plot details follow, but no spoilers ahead.
1995 was the year Johnny Mnemonic – a science fiction film adapted from William Gibson’s novel of the same name – bombed at the box office, despite an inspired lead performance from Keanu Reeves. The movie, released at the cusp of the East Asian financial crisis, brought home an uncomfortable truth: that the future belonged to technological giants which had unfettered access to sensitive data. Johnny Mnemonic is a private citizen who doubles as a courier of strategically valuable information thanks to his ability to store electronic data neurally. This “mnemonic” power to hold data makes him a target of powerful actors, and how he goes on the run forms the plot of the movie.
Two decades after Johnny Mnemonic gave the world a glimpse of this dystopian future, Jason Bourne opens this month, bearing the same grim message. When Paul Greengrass’s latest offering in the spy franchise hits Indian cinemas on Friday, it will offer foreign policy and cyber enthusiasts a delicious take on how technology and statecraft have become joined at the hip. The movie’s depiction of technology is clunky – it has a “1990s, net-panic” feel, as the Verge put it — but its portrayal of digital networks as a weapon of war is spot on.
The former Central Intelligence Agency asset, reprised by Matt Damon, dominates the latest instalment but Jason Bourne devotes substantial screen space to the character of Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), the young and highly competent head of cyber operations at the CIA. Perhaps for the first time in the series, Bourne faces a worthy adversary who is able to marshall her enormous technological resources to track the errant spy. Lee is assigned to head the task force to capture Jason Bourne, and the movie makes several references about obsolete greybeards at the CIA who are yet to emerge from the shadow of the Cold War. In one scene, Lee — who we are told is educated at Stanford — persuades the Director of National Intelligence to move her up the CIA’s ranks, because she understands Silicon Valley, run by her peers, better than anyone else in the agency.
Alicia Vikander’s character reveals a lot about the way cyber warfare is fought today. Intelligence and military agencies across the world have invested in exceptionally talented hackers and computer scientists, who exhibit a callous disregard for the rules of the “old world”. Heather Lee shuts down an entire facility in Iceland in response to a malicious cyber attack emanating from the building. Her team hacks into CCTV cameras in Berlin, using it without reservation to track Jason Bourne’s whereabouts. When Bourne and his accomplice Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) is lost among a crowd of rioters in Athens, Lee orders all social media posts from the city square to be isolated and monitored. Many of her actions go well beyond the grey zone of espionage, and are expressly prohibited in international law.
The events depicted in Jason Bourne are no flights of fancy, confined to movies alone. Several governments, realising it is impossible to prevent all manner of cyber attacks, are slowly moving towards an ‘arms control’ treaty that will regulate their use. The relative ease with which cyber weapons can be deployed has prompted the international community to consider drawing up rules of engagement for them. It has arguably become more difficult for any government today, including the United States, to defend a Stuxnet-level attack on the critical infrastructure of another country. In August and September, a group of 25 countries that includes India will meet at the United Nations to discuss cyber norms for peacetime. Meanwhile, there is a parallel effort, led largely by European states, to ensure cyber attacks comply with international humanitarian law even in times of armed conflict.
The most fascinating insights from Jason Bourne come perhaps from its treatment of the relationship between Silicon Valley and the US intelligence community. If previous movies in the Bourne series focused on controversial operations like ‘Treadstone’ and ‘Blackbriar’, the latest plot revolves around ‘Deep Dream’, a start-up based in the valley. We are not told much about Deep Dream but that it is a Big Data platform, collecting valuable information from the suite of user apps it hosts. It is a start-up incubated by the CIA, and the relationship between Deep Dream’s founder Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) and CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) forms a major part of the movie’s storyboard.
Not since Sneakers — the 1992 blockbuster in which a genius hacker (Robert Redford) joins hands with a National Security Agency operative (James Earl Jones) to retrieve a high-end surveillance device – has a movie so extensively dealt with the relationship between spy agencies and the IT community as Jason Bourne. It accurately reveals the tense and problematic relationship that many cyber security start-ups share with the CIA today. Venture capitalist firms like In-Q-Tel with acknowledged ties to the CIA have invested heavily in market leaders like FireEye and Palantir Technologies, raising the uncomfortable question: do these companies provide much-needed information security, or are they veritable arms of the surveillance state? The US Department of Defence in 2015 launched a formal collaboration with Silicon Valley called DIUx (Defence Innovation Unit- Experimental) to build “bridges” with innovators and entrepreneurs to the defence community. A second DIUx outpost has since opened in Boston, to tap the civilian expertise available at MIT and Harvard.
Jason Bourne, unlike Johnny Mnemonic, is not set in the future. It reveals the now and how of offensive cyber operations and intelligence gathering, which requires the active support, even connivance, of the private sector. Like Mnemonic, Silicon Valley giants have been caught in the crosshairs of the security establishment, thanks to their ability to collect and analyse data. The tendency to co-opt these companies into a national security narrative is dangerous. Microsoft discovered this painfully after Stuxnet, when US and Israeli operatives falsified security certifications in the Windows operating system to take down Iranian centrifuges. Microsoft may not have been complicit in the operation, but the episode hurt its reputation considerably, prompting it to start conversations with other companies to articulate norms for the private sector in cyberspace. Apple has stood up to the FBI in the iPhone hack case for the same reason: it does not want the company’s commercial operations exploited by the government or the military. Given that these digital giants have India and other major economies in their sight, it would be wise for them not to cozy up to the US government. Jason Bourne, with its kitschy tech, explains well the perils of this fraught relationship.
Arun Mohan Sukumar heads the Cyber Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.