John Oliver Takes On Government Surveillance With Help From Ed Snowden And... Some Dick Pics

from the put-it-in-terms-of-your-junk dept

Once again, it seems that John Oliver is doing a show on topics that we regularly talk about in these parts. And he's pretty damn good at it. Last night's episode was all about government surveillance, focused mainly on Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act and the fact that it's set to sunset on June 1st if Congress doesn't renew it (and, of course, there's been no debate at all on it, meaning that late in May you'll see a frantic, crazed and fact-free "debate" in which fearmongers will insist that we're all going to die if it's not extended). Oliver actually flew to Moscow and interviewed Ed Snowden as part of the episode:
Believe it or not, Oliver actually challenged Snowden a lot more than most of Snowden's interviews, which is pretty interesting (but perhaps not that surprising -- given that Oliver also gave former NSA boss Keith Alexander his most challenging interview in Oliver's very first episode). Oliver challenged Snowden on whether or not journalists could do a good enough job keeping some of the information in the documents secret (pointing to one particular fuck up in which there was a bad redaction). He also questioned how carefully Snowden reviewed all of the info before handing it over.

But, much more of the interview (and the rest of the show) actually focused on getting the public to actually care about what was going on. Oliver used the late night talk show TV trope of asking people on the street what they knew about Ed Snowden and what he revealed (the answer: basically nothing), and then flipped it around to ask them how they would feel if photos they or their loved ones took of their penises should be collected by the NSA. Then, suddenly, they were worried about the government's surveillance capabilities. That leads to Oliver coaxing Snowden into explaining the power of government surveillance -- including Section 215, Executive Order 12333, the PRISM program and even (barely) the upstream collection program under Section 702 of the FISA Act (not named in the show, though the others are) -- about how it allows the government to collect "dick picks" (which Snowden will only call "photos of your junk.")

It's an amusing segment, but I'm not convinced it's as powerful as it could have been (or as Oliver has been on other topics), in which he has been able to get people really motivated to be angry and speak out about certain injustices. And that's too bad, because this is a huge issue. I recognize it's a lot to ask of a primarily comedy show, but Oliver has been so successful at getting people worked up on issues like net neutrality, that it's almost a disappointment that he's not able to create the same level of outrage over government surveillance. In fact, most of the news coverage of Oliver's interview seems to be about the mundane aspects of his interview with Snowden, such as whether or not he misses "hot pockets."
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Filed Under: ed snowden, government surveillance, john oliver, nsa, patriot act, section 215, surveillance


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  1. icon
    fairuse (profile), 7 Apr 2015 @ 11:11pm

    Describe complex issues in terms familiar to folks

    People don't care how phones, internet, and any device in their house does what it does; Smart-devices.
    Item Phone: was a thing wired to the wall -- now it is a computer.
    Item Internet: It's a way to do things regardless of how foolish a thing can be -- count the number of penis flashing on social apps. Chatroulette being what it is.
    Item TV, computer, tablet are used by folks to do pretty much everything.

    Case of streaming video: There is a huge gap between what marketing tells a person and fact that the average person watching video has no clue about how pretty moving pictures got there. Experts lecture, people twitter that video sucks.

    Case of trying to reach an audience that cannot fit the "Big NSA watching them" into their reality: Enter Mr. Oliver. His job of predigesting the law and painting a familiar picture for normal folks. Picture of penis vs bits of data.

    Maybe I see too much crazy stuff online but most people treat pictures, video and in-the-clear e-mail rants as just life -- one big High School/College Frat party.

    I think John Oliver did a good job getting the word out to a large number of people who zoneout once the tech speak starts.

    Maybe folks should watch CBS Person of Interest and get a hint of the real scary stuff; AI with no human controls. Save that for 2080 generation.

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