No joke: How to decode the John Oliver-Edward Snowden interview

The comedian's interview with Edward Snowden delivers a primer on government surveillance programs -- and explains why it matters

surveillance eyeball neon
Don Relyea via Flickr

Can John Oliver do for government surveillance what he did for Net neutrality? Last year, the comedian transformed the debate for many by explaining why everyone should give a damn about Net neutrality. After exhorting viewers to rise up and make their voices heard, comments on Net neutrality flooded the FCC.   

This week, Oliver took viewers on a tour of the scary world of government surveillance, full of strange-sounding programs like XKeyScore, Muscular, PRISM, and MYSTIC that no one really understands. A subject so massively complex that "it's like the IT guy comes into your office and you go 'Oh s**t, don't teach me anything. I don't want to learn. You smell like canned soup.'"

Oliver pointed out with Net neutrality that "if you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring. Advocates should not be talking about protecting Net neutrality ... they should call it 'preventing cable company f**kery,' because that is what it is -- and it might actually compel people to want to do something."

While massive, warrantless surveillance of U.S. citizens could aptly be called "government f**kery," Oliver conjured a new sound bite to capture public interest -- "'Can they see my dick?' Because this is the most visible line in the sand for most people" -- and flew to Russia to get NSA-contractor-turned-leaker Edward Snowden to explain it all. Oliver wants people to care -- and do something about -- government surveillance.

Asked to describe the capabilities of each NSA program with regards to capturing a purported photograph of Oliver's penis, Snowden replied:

  • Section 702: "Yes, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which Section 702 falls under, allows the bulk collection of Internet communications that are one-end foreign. So if you have your email somewhere like Gmail, hosted on a server overseas, or transferred overseas, or at any time crosses outside the borders of the United States, your junk ends up in the database.... Even if you submit [an email] to somebody within the United States, your wholly domestic communication between you and your wife can go from New York to London and back and get caught up in the database."
  • Executive Order 12333: "Yes, EO12333 is what the NSA uses when the other authorities aren't aggressive enough or they're not catching as much as they'd like. For example, when you send your junk through Gmail, that's stored on Google's servers. Google moves data from data center to data center invisibly to you, without your knowledge. Your data could be moved outside the borders of the United States temporarily. When your junk was passed by Gmail, the NSA caught a copy of that."
  • PRISM: "PRISM is how they pull your junk out of Google [servers] with Google's involvement. All the different PRISM partners -- people like Yahoo, Facebook, Google -- the government deputizes them to be sort of their little surveillance sheriffs."
  • Upstream: "Upstream is how they snatch your junk as it transits the Internet."
  • MYSTIC: "If you are describing your junk on the phone, then yes [it gets caught up]." When asked "but do they have the content of that junk call or just the duration?" Snowden replied, "They have the content as well, but only for a few countries. If you are on vacation in the Bahamas, then yes."
  • Section 215 metadata: "No, but they can probably tell who you're sharing your junk pictures with because they're seeing who you're texting and who you're calling."

It's that last one -- Section 215 of the Patriot Act -- that in the words of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "takes the cake. It's the authority that the NSA, with the FBI's help, has interpreted to allow the U.S. government to vacuum up the call records of millions of innocent people."

Oliver calls Section 215 "the canary in the coal mine. If we cannot fix that we're not going to fix any of [these programs]." This controversial portion of the Patriot Act is up for renewal on June 1, and Oliver wants people to "have a rational, adult conversation about whether our safety is worth living in a country of barely regulated, government-sanctioned dick sheriffs."

The argument that "only metadata" is being collected under Section 215 seems to mollify many people. But as security expert Bruce Schneier's new book, "Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World," details, collecting metadata on people means putting them under surveillance.

Imagine that you hired a private detective to eavesdrop on someone. The detective would plant bugs in that person's home, office, and car. He would eavesdrop on that person's phone and computer. And you would get a report detailing that person's conversations. Now imagine that you asked the detective to put that person under surveillance. You would get a different but nevertheless comprehensive report: where he went, what he did, who he spoke with and for how long, who he wrote to, what he read, and what he purchased. That's metadata. Eavesdropping gets you the conversations; surveillance gets you everything else.

Former NSA general counsel Stewart Baker concurs: "Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody's life. If you have enough metadata you don't really need content." And last year former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden said bluntly, "We kill people based on metadata."

The issue of surveillance -- the untargeted, warrantless, bulk collection of all our data -- matters. If we don't debate and reform the rules now, the issue will only grow more complex once the number of Internet-connected devices soars to 30 billion, which it's expected to do by 2020. "The things around us will become the eyes and ears of the Internet," Schneier writes. "The privacy implications of all this connectivity are profound."

Too much media attention focuses on Snowden the man, rather than the programs he exposed. Some media reports this week took glee at his discomfiture, particularly when seeing that most of the people John Oliver polled in Times Square had no idea who he is. (Snowden needn't feel too bad: A 2010 Pew poll found that 41 percent of Americans were unable to name Joe Biden as the current vice president of the country.)

Debate over Snowden and whether he did the wrong thing in leaking secret documents is irrelevant. As Oliver said, "The fact is, we have this information now and we no longer get the luxury of pleading ignorance. It's like you can't go to SeaWorld and pretend that Shamu is happy anymore, when we now know at least half the water in her tank is whale tears."

Make John Oliver's day: Let your representatives in Washington know your views on the renewal of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

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