Don’t worry, Penelope Garcia is a Good Guy

Like most police procedural shows, CBS’ Criminal Minds often takes a hostile view toward civil liberties. Due process and warrants and the Bill of Rights are frequently portrayed on such shows as troublesome obstacles that hamper law enforcement in their efforts to keep us safe from the monsters threatening us all.

This is particularly insidious on Criminal Minds for a couple of reasons. First because the heroes of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit never seem to face any difficulties after catching suspects due to illegal, warrantless searches — mainly because they tend to end up killing those suspects after catching them red-handed (often literally red-handed). The team’s leader, Agent Aaron Hotchner, is a former prosecutor, but I don’t remember ever hearing him express any desire to focus on evidence that would be legitimate in court. I suppose if you usually end up killing suspects without a trial, you don’t have to worry about what would or would not be admissible in court.

This is how the NSA’s PRISM program works.

But Criminal Minds’ casual disdain for civil liberties is also insidious because it’s embodied in the lovely, friendly person of Penelope Garcia. Garcia is the show’s magic hacker — or “Techno Wizard” — a character whose quirky fashion and personality serve as TV shorthand for her apparent ability to hack into any computer database quickly and without leaving any trace.

Let me say that I enjoy Criminal Minds and that I like Penelope Garcia. Kirsten Vangsness and the writers make it almost impossible not to like Penelope Garcia. She’s kind and loyal and emotionally vulnerable and unfailingly well-intentioned. But it’s exactly this — Garcia’s kindness and benevolence — that makes her routine disregard for civil liberties all the more pernicious. Because Penelope Garcia is the personification of the NSA’s PRISM program.

What happens on the show is that the BAU team is tracking a serial killer or a predatory sexual sadist — there’s a new one every week, suggesting that the world is filled with such dangerous people. And at some point in most episodes, the team asks or hints that Garcia should work her hacking magic — there’s no time for warrants or other legal measures — to help them locate the killer. She hacks into the databases of credit-card companies, cell-phone providers, ISPs, ATM networks, tax records, medical records, sealed court proceedings — you name it.

Note that Garcia does not, herself, create any of these files or databases. She’s not Big Brother, recording or compiling data by snooping on private citizens. She simply helps herself to all the data compiled by the perfectly legal snooping that has long been practiced by a variety of private, corporate entities. She’s not tapping anyone’s phone, but merely tapping into the records of the phone company. She’s not creating a surveillance state in which every individuals’ every movement and transaction is being tracked and recorded. The cell-phone companies and credit-/debit-card companies set all of that up on their own. She’s just borrowing their data and putting it to some other use.

A benevolent use, of course, because Garcia is good and kind and honest and she would only ever use her otherwise-unaccountable and unchecked power to protect the innocent and to punish the guilty.

That is essentially the same argument being offered to defend the otherwise-unaccountable and unchecked power of the NSA. And it’s a lousy argument. A presumption of benevolence is never a sufficient check on power.

Penelope Garcia is fictional, and in fiction we can agree to play along with the impossible notion of an unfailingly benevolent person. But we know real people are not like that. And real institutions are nothing at all like that.

The danger Criminal Minds portrays is not fictional. The monster-of-the-week format of a procedural series may serve to exaggerate the prevalence of lurid serial killers, but such dangerous people really do exist in the real world, where real FBI agents and real law enforcement agencies really do perform a heroic service in protecting public safety. But we quite sensibly do not cede law enforcement agencies unlimited and unchecked power to fulfill their necessary role, because power can always be abused and unchecked power is a license for unchecked abuse.

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  • And mistakes. They always catch the bad guy at the end. They don’t show any damage they’ve done to the innocent. Law & Order used to show very good, very competent people who worked for the government and made mistakes all the time, but they stopped.

    Whenever there’s a cop show about some kind of sexual sadism, they always and invariably portray BDSM as scary and creepy and dangerous and horrible. They dig into the records of anyone who’s said she likes to tie people up or he likes to be spanked. Someone bought a dildo! Call 911! These shows are retrograde, but can we trust the government not to be?

    A few years ago, a teacher was fired for belonging to a sex club. That’s the government invading someone’s private life and deciding that, because of the completely legal and fully consensual things she did in it, she wasn’t allowed to keep her job. The administration was possibly evil — or they were possibly frightened and trying to cover their asses, not realizing they’d get backlash from what they did.

    Maybe Penelope Garcia is perfectly benevolent. I am sure that she is not perfectly perfect.

  • mhelbert

    Let’s add NCIS, (all flavors), and Person of Interest. People with the skill to access Pandora’s digital box with impunity.

  • Carrie Looney

    Yes, there are so many levels on which I do not like many of these crime shows – it gets messy to go into them. The celebration of vigilante justice, the idea that Due Process is just a useless stumbling block in the way of Justice, the oversimplification of complex societal issues, the love of the gun – and, as you mention, the demonization of kink.

  • Dan

    A ridiculous and wicked show that panders to our worst instincts. Mandy Patinkin left for reasons I support. what kind of nation thinks rape torture multilation and murder is entertaining?

  • Every kind of nation that’s ever existed?

    There’s nothing wrong with being entertained by dramatic stuff happening in fiction, and with wanting to see the bad guys caught. It’s the way in which it’s done that’s problematic.

  • Adrienne

    I love Criminal Minds and the cast/ characters are the main reason. But yeah, I have thought about this. It seems pretty ridiculous to me that even the NSA/PRISM would collect the kinds of data that Garcia uses on the show, or that, if they did, they would know how to use it. I’m not saying that it’s okay, I’m just saying that I seriously, seriously doubt the speed and accuracy with which Garcia finds and cross-references information is coming anytime soon to a government agency near you.

  • ohiolibrarian

    Given the popularity of mysteries in general, most people in most nations think it entertaining. See also: Illiad and many folk tales and songs. Etc.

  • P J Evans

    And people thinking that that’s the way it really works, or should work.

  • This is kind of a thing with crime shows nowadays, I’ve noticed. Abby Scuito in NCIS, Angela in Bones…

  • Good points, yes. But it’s also useful to wonder why We the People have such a voracious appetite for this sort of thing — why it’s so prevalent in writing done for film and television.

    I tend to think of it as a misguided impulse. Our (I would say) in-built yearning for a world where justice is done to evildoers gets somehow all mixed up with a misguided belief that the world ought to be simple, and suddenly we start to need the world to be comprised of black-hatted villains who can do no right, and white-hatted heroes who can do no wrong.

    The protagonists in these shows are stand-ins for what we most want to believe about ourselves — that we are the sorts of people who are fully capable of always distinguishing right from wrong, and then always choosing the right.

    This is obviously not the case, because — as we have learned from Master Tolkien — you absolutely CANNOT take up the ring of power without being in a way owned and re-created by it.

    Everybody thinks that if THEY were the ones who had access to the database (or the influential blog, the gun, or the nuclear-effin’-weapon), they would only ever use it for good. That they would (obviously) only ever wear the white hats.

    I wonder if perhaps this is a particularly American sentiment — an outgrowth of our ridiculous American Exceptionalism. Whatever it is, the only antidote I can think of is humility, coupled with empathetic love.

  • Tofu_Killer

    Ever notice how rarely the guys in the white hats hit innocent bystanders while blazing away at the bad guys? Same thing.
    People want the good guys to be smarter/better/faster than the opposition.

  • So, wait. Penelope Garcia is just a direct rip-off of Abby from NCIS?

    Also, I’ve been saying things like this for years. My big problem is that eventually the shows get to the plotline of “person from Internal Affairs who has a beef against [big damn hero/main unit] and will do anything to take them down.” The IA person is inevitably a pest, a bad guy, a nuisance, or a misguided good guy who’s always underfoot. The important thing is that IA is never right and will either come around to the big damn hero’s way of thinking or be removed by outside forces.

    Several years ago I realized one simple thing: In real life Internal Affairs are the good guys. Or, if they’re not the good guys, per se, they’re often the best line of defense against the bad guys parading around as good guys. We should like Internal Affairs. Instead they’re shorthand for “guys who keep the real police work from getting done.” It’s pretty sick and wrong.

  • hidden_urchin

    Now I really want to see a show from the perspective of an IA team investigating the behavior of these cowboy cops.

  • Lori

    So, wait. Penelope Garcia is just a direct rip-off of Abby from NCIS?

    I think it’s more accurate to say that Abby and Garcia are both examples of a particular trope.

  • Lori

    Didn’t The Shield sort of do that? The cops were the main characters, but they were dirty cops and IA was right about them, yes?

  • fraser

    I see a similar rationale in the push against videotaping police officers or prosecuting CIA agents for torture. We don’t want them to hesitate do we? We don’t want them to worry about whether they’re going to be hauled up on charges for trying to protect America, do we?
    When it comes to tasering people for not obediently complying with orders, or using torture yes, actually I do.

  • storiteller

    More reasons to love The Wire. Not only are the cops often not the Good Guys, but even when they are trying to be, they screw up. And the one time they try to do something without a warrant, they literally lose a very expensive camera and have to pay for it out of pocket.

    In terms of Internal Affairs being the Good Guys, I think a show like that would be interesting. I work in government and while the Investigator General can be annoying, I’m glad they exist.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    Poor Fuzzy Dunlop.

  • Lori

    I think Person of Interest is more honest about the problems inherent in this kind of use of big data. It’s built into the premise and the heroes have been wrong/misinterpreted the data.

  • Lori

    I wonder if perhaps this is a particularly American sentiment — an outgrowth of our ridiculous American Exceptionalism.

    No. I’ve seen it in plenty of stories produced in other countries. As you said, people want the good guys to be good and right.

  • LL

    Just a few examples of the kinds of stuff you might not want people to know:
    * You’re homosexual and you work in a state where you could be fired for being homosexual (or where, at least, an employer could fire you and if you suspect it has anything to do with your sexual orientation, you’d have no legal recourse)
    * You’re pregnant, but you don’t want your employer to know it yet
    * You’ve had an abortion (or your wife has had an abortion) and you don’t want others to know

    * You have a medical condition that you don’t want known publicly, esp. by your employer
    * One of your kids (or your spouse) has a substance abuse problem
    * You are being sued (or are a witness in a lawsuit) and the opposition would like to have any info about you that might suggest you are not a reliable witness, even if it’s not really relevant
    * You are on a jury in a criminal case and one of the attorneys involved would like to know more about you so they can know what “buttons” to push during their arguments to get you to decide in their favor

    That’s just the stuff I could come up with off the top of my head. There are lots of ways any of this info could become public, either accidentally or “accidentally”

    Apparently, there are almost 500,000 contractors with security clearance in the U.S. government. So almost 500,000 people with access to your info. 500,000 to bribe or otherwise induce to get pertinent info on anyone in the U.S. Info they’d normally have to go to some trouble to get to and/or would be illegal for them to obtain.

    One of the few things that can still flummox me is how people think privacy isn’t important. How it’s no big deal if people know stuff about you. I always thought something being nobody’s goddam business was reason enough for them not to know.

  • GuestPoster

    Interestingly, this is exactly the problem Lex Luthor has with Superman in the comics. I mean, sure, he’s also bad for business but, really… Superman SAYS he’s there to help. He SAYS he’s the good guy. What if he’s lying? What if he changes his mind?

    Not to say that the government is playing the role of Superman particularly well, but that’s always been the funny thing about ol’ Supes in particular: the most powerful force on earth, and all we can do is sit back and watch. And hate Lex Luthor for trying to find ways to stop it.

  • GuestPoster

    I actually rather liked Woolsey in Stargate SG1 for that: he did a pretty good job as an IA person who legitimately tried to do the right thing.

  • WingedBeast

    Gibbs always bugs me, in NCIS. He’s murdered one person, he’s threatened a scientist with a gun (not even a guilty one, just someone who happened to have information), he’s tampered with evidence, he’s basically broken all the rules in the book.
    And, because he’s both good and nigh-infallible in the show shouldn’t be excuses. That causes problems even without it being a good, nigh-infallible guy that the show just doesn’t explore.
    You don’t have to hate Gibbs to go after him. You just have to have any respect for the rule of law.

  • WingedBeast

    The current NSA scandal keeps on reminding me of a short bit of a scene from The West Wing. One of the main characters was having a conversation with some Russians who were negotiating some laws. They were talking about how much power to give the President.

    Russian guy made a point about how the current President is an honorable man.

    American guy responds that you don’t make the laws just for the current President, but for the next one that might not be so honorable.

    That was my point with regards to the warrentless wiretapping of the last administration and is my point about all this now. Sure, let’s assume that the NSA is completely ethical and above board in how it responds to all its information and access.

    What do we know about the world fifty years from now? How about twenty five? How about five?

    Things are going to change. The potential for this kind of access to be used to find networks of terrorists is also the potential for this kind of access to be used to find networks of activists interested in an agenda that runs counter to person X in the NSA or with authority over same.

    Much like with the sociological theory, there seems to be a political magic line theory that says that, because something is illegal or not being done now it won’t be done.

    This may seem like slippery slope territory, but it is exactly what the founding fathers had in mind with the Bill of Rights. These are things that the government will not do, even though these handicap law enforcement even in the cases of persons trying to overthrow or destroy the nation, because to do otherwise would be denying people their civil liberties.

    It wasn’t just to increaset he difficulty level and see if we could sitll win with a handicap. It was because without that handicap, we’ve already lost.

  • Lori

    Superman SAYS he’s there to help. He SAYS he’s the good guy. What if he’s lying? What if he changes his mind?

    There’s a line in the trailer for the new Superman movie that makes this point. I suspect it’s inadvertent, but still.

    Jor-El and Lara are discussing sending baby Kal-El to earth and they have this exchange:

    Lara: He’ll be an outcast. They’ll kill him.

    Jor-El: How?

    It struck me as both funny and a nice encapsulation of the problem of Superman.

  • * You’re in a dominant/submissive relationship, especially if you’re the dominant, especially (in an interesting reversal) if you’re a man and your sub is a woman.
    * You have a parent with a substance abuse problem.
    * You have any kind of “psych history”, like being depressed in your 20s.

    * You made a complete ass of yourself online at some point.

  • I remember the scene in ‘Dirty Harry’ where the hero describes with great satisfaction killing a man who was in the very act of raping a victim. I was only a child but still knew that the odds of ever coming across such obvious proof of evil guilt were virtually nil.

    I suppose it could be basically harmless to fantisize of a world where good people and evil people are strictly easily and obviously distinguished from each other. But if you refuse to accept this as the fantasy it is, if you insist that the worlds ills can only be explained by other people’s cowardly failure to adequately punish the evildoers, this conceit causes far more harm in the world as any mustache-twirling evil for its own sake.

    What are you going to do when a person similar to yourself commits some foul deed? Someone with a similar culture, lifestyle and/or belief system to yourself? Blame the media? Indulgent modern morals? Rince and repeat as neccessary? No one questions the general principle of needing a government to protect us from malevolent intentions. It’s why people accept the authority of government of any form or philosophy over themselves. But the authorities can never possibly be less human than the sketchy neighbor down the block or the black sheep in our own family. There is no such thing as living or being in such a way as to be obviously law-abiding and righteous and nothing about my or yourself to give such an impression.

  • Carrie Looney

    See also, David Strathairn’s character in Sneakers…

  • Eric the Red

    Seven years ago, “the Bush administration did this.”

    Five years ago, “the Bush administration did that.”

    Today it’s “the NSA, IRS and DOJ scandals.”
    You’re completely incapable of seeing Obama as anything but a good guy, aren’t you?

  • Lori

    One of the things that bugs the crap out of me about the character of Abby on NCIS is her adoration of Gibbs. The whole crew is way too impressed with him, but Abby is especially ridiculous. That makes her annoying to me as a character, but I’m also annoyed by the fact that I think the show uses her to tell the audience how to feel about Gibbs and IMO that is not how the audience ought to feel about Gibbs.

  • Lori

    This is indeed a red letter day. Eric the Red posted something that has some truth to it and is not blatantly offensive. It’s a case of being somewhat right for the wrong reasons, but there’s some fairness to the point.

  • David S.

    One of the CSI books (Body of Evidence, by Max Allan Collins) had someone using an office printer to print out child porn. When they searched the house of the obvious suspect, they found all sorts of videos of bondage with him and his ex-wife in the house, which was enough for Catherine Willows to be convinced of his guilt. Huge frame-up, of course, and she actually apologized for being too judgmental at the end.

  • Lori

    Wow. File that under “stuff you would never see on the actual show.” CSI’s approach to kink is so consistently incredibly offensive that it has lead me to wonder things about the people in charge.

  • David S.

    The furry episode wasn’t too bad. And they do have Lady Heather as a fairly positive recurring character.

  • Lori

    I remember being bugged about the furry episode, but I can’t remember any details so it’s possible that I was being unfairly cranky owing to all the FAIL that came before. I also stopped watching years ago so I’ll have to take your word for the positive nature of Lady Heather’s recurring appearances. The stuff I saw with her sort of bugged, but I don’t recall the details of that either. Blessedly, the episodes I watched have now become indistinct in my memory.

  • We hate Luthor for it because we’re aware of his ulterior motives and the harm he causes to advance his agenda. Batman also has ways of neutralizing Superman, but we don’t hate him for it.

  • David S.

    I was actually watching Criminal Minds recently, and thinking about this. They actually told someone “Just give us your IP address; we don’t need the actual computer” (to see what their son was up to before he killed himself.) Heck, even if Penelope Garcia is a good guy, is there no disturbance over the fact that all this data is open to hackers?

  • Fair enough, a Democratic president has indeed betrayed not just liberal but basic American ideals. It happens. We liberals are at least theoretically supposed to be less inclined to cults of leadership and ‘Fatherhood’ and so be better able to handle such disappointments without denial. Take the Social Security; leave the internment camps.

    But anyway I hope you don’t expect Fred myself or anyone here to meet your standards of avoiding hypocrisy in order to legitimize being liberal. I’m not going to buy a notebook to keep track of complaints I make about Republican presidents so that I can dutifully and fairly make the same attacks on Democratic ones who do something similar. Life is just too damned short for that. Sorry.

  • stardreamer42

    Bones, somewhere back around second season, had Booth making an impassioned speech about how torture is something our government STOPS from happening. Something only the bad guys do.

    Yes, I know that’s blindly naive, but I still think it’s a lot better than 24 or Zero Dark Thirty portraying torture as something we do as a matter of course because it works. And I don’t think you’d see Booth making the same speech now.

  • stardreamer42

    And who among us has NOT been guilty of that last? I sure as hell have.


    * You’re a member of certain types of hobby club — this is not limited to sex clubs; for a while the SCA was on the FBI’s “suspicious organization” list.

  • reynard61

    “So, wait. Penelope Garcia is just a direct rip-off of Abby from NCIS?”

    Well, yes and no. Her personality is pretty close to Abby’s (although with a bit less Twilight Sparkle and a bit more Pinkie Pie, if you get what I mean), but her computer skills are more equivalent to those of Agent Tim McGee. (I’m not sure that Garcia could operate Major Mass Spec if her life depended on it.)

  • stardreamer42

    That was exactly the argument a lot of people made during the Bush II era — often phrased (to his supporters) as, “Do you REALLY want to see that kind of power in the hands of a Democratic President?” And it bounced, because those people had honestly convinced themselves that they would never be out of power again.

    The current foofaraw is largely the chickens coming home to roost, and while I’m not any happier about it than they are, I do find it hard to muster much in the way of sympathy for outraged right-wingers. They could have stopped this, and chose not to do so.

  • aunursa

    your standards of avoiding hypocrisy in order to legitimize being liberal

    Nitpicky clarification: I believe double-standard is the relevant sin.

    Hypocrisy is advocating rules or a standard of conduct for others that the person does not himself follow.

    Double-standard is applying rules or a standard of conduct for one group that the person does not apply to another (more favored) group.

  • Speaking of data mining… gmail is now offering me ads for bandages as I read these posts. This amuses me very, very much.

  • LC

    Why especially if you’re the man? (I’m guessing it is easier to make the case that this is actually abuse and not consensual since it overlaps with the primary abuse narrative?)

  • emjb

    Really, almost all..maybe all..cop shows are pernicious like this. If the cops are the protagonists, then the audience is seduced to their POV. We know all about their anguish and nobility and so don’t mind when they occasionally plant evidence or get a warrant through dubious means. CSI and all the “Magic Pixie Dream Forensic Scientist” shows are so over the top about not only the evilness of the criminals but also the technological abilities of a crime lab that they blew right past the parody marker long ago. In this case, the NSA might be able to get this data, but not by going clickety-click and frowning at the screen, and they wouldn’t be doing it for any piddly little crime squad, more than likely.

  • Your guess is correct.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Yeah, at least on Supernatural we know that when the heroes do stuff like that, it’s only some of their many illegal activities.

  • Vermic

    Yes, Forrest Whitaker’s IA antagonist on The Shield was absolutely right about our protagonists, though his efforts to prove it led him into some unprofessional and illegal waters himself. Of course, The Shield is very morally gray and we’re not meant to support a lot of the things Vic Mackey & company get away with.

    Whitaker’s character, IIRC, was disliked by everyone at the station, including the honest cops who would’ve loved to see Mackey behind bars. It was implied that that’s the general attitude toward IA — they do an important and necessary service, but they also snoop and pry and get coworkers to rat on one another and nobody likes that.