On Sunday, John Oliver had what is easily the most educational and fun
half hour of journalism on the surveillance state that you're ever likely to see, including an interview with Edward Snowden. What John Oliver did for net neutrality
last summer, he's doing now for an issue that's pretty damned important, too. Namely, the government sucking up all your electronic communications in the name of national security.
As he points out in opening the segment, June 1 is a key date: that's when Section 215 of the Patriot Act has to be renewed, tweaked, or ended. Oliver explains Section 215.
Section 215 says the government can ask for "any tangible things" so long as it's for "an investigation to protect against international terrorism." That's basically a blank check. It's like letting a teenager borrow a car under the strict condition that they only use it for car-related activities. "OK, Mom and Dad, I'm going to use it for a handjob in a Wendy's parking lot, but that's car-related, so I think I'm covered."
Then he explains about the only check to the government, the secret FISA court. Which, he explains, has approved over 35,000 surveillance applications in the past 34 years—and rejected 12. So let's start talking about Section 215, he says, as the place to begin "because there is widespread agreement it needs to be reformed, from the president to Ted Cruz to both the ACLU and the NRA to even the guy who wrote the thing in the first place." That would be Rep. James Sensenbrenner, who has been arguing for years
that the government is not following the law as he intended it. But, as he and Snowden discuss in the last half of the segment, the problem here is a lot like the one in fighting for net neutrality.
Snowden: It is a challenging conversation. It's difficult for most people to even conceptualize. The problem is the internet is massively complex and so much of it is invisible. Service providers, technicians, engineers, the phone number—
Oliver: Let me stop you right there, Edward. Because this is the whole problem. The whole problem. I just . . . just glaze over. It's like the IT guy comes into your office and you go "oh, shit."
So he boiled it down to what people really care about, based on the person-on-the-street interviews his team conducted for the segment: dick pics. The government sucking up and hanging onto all of their data didn't really alarm people, until they were told that all their naked selfies are included. So they go through all the parts of the Patriot Act and all the programs the NSA and how the agency can "snatch your junk" out of various servers and from internet providers.
Oliver: "Edward, if the American people understood this, they would be absolutely horrified."
Snowden: "I guess I never thought about putting it in the context of your junk."
Maybe that's the context that will make it clear to the public just how ridiculous and how out-of-control these programs are. And maybe John Oliver will get the public riled up enough to raise hell with their representatives and senators to do something about.
You can watch the whole segment below the fold. It's worth the 30 minutes.