Edward Snowden

Have We Reached (and Passed) Peak Snowden?

John Oliver tries to keep the surveillance debate going with dick jokes.


Proof he's a big tech nerd: He misses hot pockets.

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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  1. I really like everything I’ve seen John Oliver do. I don’t know much about the guy, but he’s pretty damn amusing. And yeah, most Americans don’t care about surveillance, its sad.

    1. I think Oliver’s a really great comedic actor, but I can’t get into his show. I watched ten minutes of it a few weeks back, when he was doing something on infrastructure, and it was all rather lame. The argument was the same warmed over stuff you might see on HuffPo, and his attempt to make it funny fell flat for me. I think I’m over the format of one guy informing/lecturing you about an issue, since that same person is in control of the narrative with no pushback from some other parties. Combine that with a snarky and flippant attitude you need to make the report comedic, and it just annoys me.

      1. ^^This

        He is John Stewart without the cuss-words bleeped. I was able to tolerate most of two episodes.

      2. Agreed. It would be better as a segment of a show than a stand-alone. Too long. If I wanted to get hectored every Sunday night for a half an hour, I’d just ask Banjos if I’m doing my share of work around the house.

  2. As long as people are still distracted/obsessed with TEAM, none of this shit will have any traction. The entire purpose of rabid partisanship is to make people loyal regardless of what their “side” actually does. It’s phenomenally useful to the politicians and bureaucrats, and the dumb fucks who engage in it willingly throw away their integrity and voice.

    1. I’m increasingly of the opinion that unless we find a place where we can physically remove ourselves from this system, none of it will end well.

    2. The NSA thing was the issue most likely to hit Obama’s base. He was taking a hit on it. But the GOP, with a few exceptions, didn’t take up the issue and it petered out.

  3. “the average American (or at least the ones found in Times Square)”

    Oh, Scott.

    really? was that not a joke?

    you have a 1 in 3 chance of actually finding an “american” in times square…. and even then, there’s a good chance that they are 1st generation immigrants who know nothing of the country beyond the hudson river.

    I would have thought Kennedy’s “person on the street” interview-attempts in The Independents would have permanently discredited the practice of using the Times Square area for something resembling a ‘representative sample’.

    1. The point of the Times Square interview is to give the audience something to point and laugh at. Accuracy has nothing to do with it.

    2. #theRealAmerica

      1. I don’t expect you to understand bo, you don’t live here….

        but Times Square is “extremely weird” even by NYC standards….and most “real americans” would consider even the ‘regular NYC resident’ sample a bit skewed.

        30 percent are tourists, another 30 percent are immigrants trying to sell them stuff, and the remaining 30 percent are highly unlikely to stop and chat because they’re trying to get to work and hate having to walk through #&$^@ times square every day. I did it for ~5 years myself.

        but media people hate to wander more than a block from their broadcast centers, so they end up doing their “man on the street”-interviews with swedish tourists and pakistani IT guys

        pointing this out isn’t Right-Wing xenophobia, bo. Sorry. Better luck next time.

    3. “Well I, I think that, er, nobody who has gone abroad should be allowed back in the country. I mean, er, blimey, blimey if they’re not keen enough to stay here when they’re ‘ere, why should we allow them back, er, at the tax-payers expense? I mean, be fair, I mean, I don’t eat squirrels do I? I mean well perhaps I do one or two but there’s no law against that, is there? It’s a free country. I mean if I want to eat a squirrel now and again, that’s me own business, innit? I mean, I’m no racialist.”

  4. I feel sorry for Snowden. Say what you will about the NSA and the Patriot Act, but Russia is worse and showing no signs of improving. He made a huge personal sacrifice and it seems like so few people really care about what the NSA was doing, let alone what it cost Snowden to reveal it.

    1. He’s lucky Putin gets to use him as a thumb in Obama’s eye, or Snowden would probably be rotting away in the deepest hole Holder and Peter King could find.

  5. they do care about strangers in the government being able to see their naked pictures on their phones.

    “I’m *proud* of my dick pics! That’s why I post ’em!”

  6. 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.

    Can you imagine if Bieber was on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370?

    1. I imagine it all the time

  7. “I did this to give the American people a chance to decide for themselves the kind of government they want to have.

    It seems clear to me that we’re deciding. Also, re the segment where he showed snowden the Times square bit, to be fair, Snowden said from the outset he didn’t want the story to be about him. I couldn’t care less if some random New Yorkers don’t know who he is. It would be better if they knew what the issues were.

  8. Oliver is a big time lefty, but he has talked about issues like Civil Forfeiture and Policing for Profit, that most mainstream liberals only touch in the context of the government oppressing minorites. I have to give him respect for that.

    1. He does. I just wish he were a little funnier.

    2. Sure, but as long as he continues to play the TEAM game, he will be handicapped by partisan bullshit. If you’re actually against shit like this, TEAM shouldn’t matter. Yet it does, because people’s identities are so wrapped up in their TEAM.

      1. He might be handicapped by TEAM Bullshit, but that doesn’t mean that everybody who watches the show will be. A Team Blue shill who talks about this stuff, like Oliver, will do more to advance the cause of liberty than a Team Blue shill who doesn’t talk about this stuff, like Maddow. Oliver’s HBO show reaches way more people than Reason does. If somebody casually watches Oliver talk about policing for profit, they may do a google search leading to Balko or to a Reason article. I’m not arguing that John Oliver is going to save libertarianism, just that he may help score a couple of converts.

  9. I’ve got a long list of shit I consider unbelievable that we, as a country, are tolerating or, at best, not freaking out enough about.

    1. Posted at 4:20. I’m sure we all know what you have a problem with….hippie.

      1. You might think that from a commenter here, but that’s not my idiom.

  10. Hopefully this becomes a big news story and more people find out about Snowdon:


    1. Thanks for the link. This is beautiful.

  11. I guess I tried to like him but his episode a few weeks back that everyone liked where he’s ripping on Phillip Morris, I think it was, was shortsighted, pro-sin tax and anti-business.

  12. I have no idea who Rep. Mark Pocano is, but I hope he can get Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison, WI) to sign on to his bill.

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