John Oliver took on America and the National Security Agency's (NSA) massive surveillance state and the current foot-dragging on possibly reforming it Sunday night on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It's typically sharp but also typically surface-level stuff from Oliver. Actually, part of the point of the 33-minute segment was to point out how difficult it is to get below the surface level of mass data collection information in the United States and still keep people's attention. The Patriot Act is up for renewal, and the question is whether any actual surveillance reform will take place before then. When talking about the role of Section 215—which has been used to justify the mass collection of telephone and Internet metadata from Americans, not just foreigners who were suspected of terrorist activities—along with all the different powers granted by the act, he notes, "If we cannot fix that, we're not going to fix any of them."
Then he showed a clip of CNN interrupting a legislator talking about reforming mass metadata collection in order to show Justin Bieber's bond hearing live. So that's how things are these days. Oliver's larger concern is whether Americans even care about mass surveillance or had been paying attention. He successfully pursues the tried-and-true comedic method of asking Americans on the street a factual question they can't answer. In this case, he asks people who Edward Snowden is, and they don't know. Those who recognize his name think he's connected to Wikileaks and the leaking of classified military information. Oliver seems to think they're confusing him with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, but I think they're actually confusing him with Chelsea Manning when she was known as Bradley.
Anyway, after establishing that perhaps the average American (or at least the ones found in Times Square) isn't paying attention to all of this, the whole segment takes a surprising turn when Oliver travels to Moscow to interview Snowden in person. He asks Snowden why he's doing all of this. Snowden responds, "I did this to give the American people a chance to decide for themselves the kind of government they want to have. That is a conversation that I think the American people deserve to decide." But Oliver also shows Snowden the same Times Square montage he showed us, so that Snowden can cringe a bit.
Oliver's agenda isn't to humiliate Snowden. Rather, he wants to figure out how to keep the NSA's mass surveillance information in the news so that people will push for reform ahead of a June renewal of the Patriot Act. Oliver's suggestion: dick pics! That is to say, Americans may not care about the various acronyms and extremely technical details of how the surveillance works (Oliver whines about being confronted with somebody from his IT department who smells like canned soup), but they do care about strangers in the government being able to see their naked pictures on their phones. So Oliver goes through several NSA programs that Snowden has exposed and has Snowden amusingly explain how they work in the context of allowing the government to look at your dick pics.
It works, but it probably also unintentionally highlights how a lot of the debate over surveillance has shifted over to encryption and whether the federal government can demand that telecom and Internet providers provide backdoor entrances so that they can snoop on people's communications. If Americans can't provide enough pressure to get Congress to fix the Patriot Act, maybe there are other ways to protect communications.
But that doesn't mean members of Congress aren't going to give it the old college try. Reps. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) is working with Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) to try to repeal the Patriot Act and replace it with new legislation that requires warrants to collect Americans' communications, prevent meddling with tech companies, and enhance whistleblower protections, among other things.
Watch the Oliver segment below:
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