Government surveillance is probably among the hottest topics in technology and politics — if you’re involved in technology or politics. As for the rest of the U.S., Justin Bieber getting arrested is need-to-know news and the prospect of the National Security Agency spying on civilians for no good reason is sort of snore. What? They spied on UNICEF? If UNICEF has nothing to hide, can I hear more about Teresa Giudice’s life in prison? The reality star had a secret cellphone. Now that’s a hot covert operation.
But John Oliver, a Brit, is the master at getting Americans to notice stuff that’s usually too complicated and boring for them to care about. Remember net neutrality before it got the Oliver treatment? Probably not. People really didn’t care about who got a fast lane and who got a slow lane. Then Oliver compared the Internet service providers to the mob and we all got so incensed that we crashed the Federal Communications Commission’s website with outraged comments.
“Why wasn’t the government taking this issue seriously,” the citizenry screamed, long after the government had, in fact, started to take the issue seriously. The government thought that Oliver’s segment was hilarious. Now that the FCC has passed net neutrality regulations, the cable and telecom companies, probably not so much.
On HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” Oliver’s done some segments on other topics that Americans seem not to care very much about, such as the wealth gap and climate change. Neither got the overwhelming response that net neutrality did. But of course, the government wasn’t about to take action on relevant legislation or regulations.
Now he’s produced a segment on U.S. government surveillance that tries to gin up public interest ahead of a June 1 deadline for government reauthorization of parts of the Patriot Act that enable unprecedented amounts of data collection on innocent citizens.
As part of the segment, Oliver flew to Russia to interview Edward Snowden, the man who stole confidential government files while working for its eavesdropping operations and who brought the NSA’s huge data collection operation to light. Snowden, who sought sanctuary in Russia, says that he broke the law to help spark a huge debate over the role of the NSA in our lives. He gives Oliver his usual spiel about why he broke rules to get information about mass surveillance into the hands of reporters. The government might say that it doesn’t use the information it collects for nefarious purposes, but Snowden contends that all of its spying makes us vulnerable.
It’s like having a “gun pointed at your head” and having the gunman say, “We won’t pull the trigger. Trust us,” Snowden tells Oliver.
“No one cares,” Oliver replies. Then he shows Snowden some footage of random New Yorkers — residents of New York City! The town that terrorists actually attacked and that now lives under some of the most intense surveillance of any place in the country! — saying they have no idea who Snowden is or what he did. And they’re not terribly concerned about government spying. Snowden sacrificed his freedom, in essence, for nothing. The national debate he wanted to spark got drowned out in a series of twerking clips.
This is the big, sad truth. Everything that Snowden did failed to make a dent in the national conversation beyond the journalists who cover the industry, and the politicians who debate privacy issues. It’s having a bigger impact on the tech industry outsideof the United States, where concerns about NSA spying are making it hard for American companies to do business in foreign countries.
Oliver is a critic, but he’s a smart one. Surveillance is, he contends, just a really hard issue to get our heads around. We all want perfect privacy and perfect safety, but, he concedes, “those two things cannot coexist.”
With this sentence, he’s started a more nuanced conversation on national security and the NSA than most of the stories you will read and even more so than “Citizenfour,” the Oscar-winning documentary that explores Snowden and government surveillance without ever touching on the very real reasons why the U.S. might want to spy. (Snowden concedes that he didn’t read every document that he took, and that he’s relying on news organizations to decide what to print.)
The government must soon decide what to do about the Patriot Act and, specifically, things like Section 215, which Oliver says that everyone from President Obama to Ted Cruz, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the National Rifle Association want to see revised. But unless there’s some noise from the American people, the whole Patriot Act could simply be renewed with no conversation and no fanfare, just as it was in 2011.
Snowden doesn’t want this to happen. He’s living in exile and is risking life in prison to end the wholesale surrender of privacy. Oliver doesn’t want that to happen either. He’s flown to Russia, likely gotten himself on a government watch list, braved the crowds in Times Square and taken compromising pictures of himself just to make sure this doesn’t happen. It remains to be seen whether any of it matters.
Katie Benner is a tech columnist with Bloomberg View.