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article imageJohn Oliver interviews Edward Snowden on NSA surveillance

By Michael Thomas     Apr 6, 2015 in Politics
John Oliver tackles heady subjects on his weekly HBO show, but to take on the complexity of National Security Agency surveillance and the Patriot Act, he got the help of Edward Snowden.
On Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver tackled the complex issue of government surveillance, especially in light of an important date: June 1, 2015.
That's the date where the U.S. government will debate reauthorizing the Patriot Act. The most alarming part of the act is section 215, which states in part:
The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation... may make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, provided that such investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution.
In other words, the government can, with permission from the FISA court, procure any form of communication if it suspects criminal activity. The government claims in most cases to not look at names or the messages themselves, which may well be true. But as Oliver notes, in the last 12 years, the FISA court approved 35,434 requests for communication interceptions and rejected merely 12.
However, the biggest problem seems to be translating into simple terms the extent of the NSA's reach when it comes to spying domestically and abroad. When Oliver's team surveyed a random group of passers-by in New York City's Times Square, several had not even heard of Edward Snowden. Others remembered the name but couldn't specify exactly what he did, with one even thinking he's in charge of Wikileaks.
Oliver then revealed he visited Russia last week and secured an interview with Snowden himself. On the concept of the NSA having, but not analyzing, intercepted communications, Snowden equated it to the government saying "We have a gun against your head, but we won't pull the trigger."
Then came the biggest question — what can help the public understand the extent of the NSA's surveillance? Oliver had the idea of putting them in context of nude pictures, or, as the video puts it specifically, "dick pics." When Oliver's news crew talked to the same passers-by about a "dick pic program," all said they wouldn't want their photos in government hands and if such a program existed, they would want it to be transparent.
Snowden then talked about various programs, orders and laws in the context of a "dick pic." FISA Amendment Act Section 702, for example, says that if someone sends an email with servers outside of the U.S., the government gets a copy of that email. So in that way, the government can see your "dick pic." Executive Order 12333 operates on the same concept.
Throw in the PRISM program, Mystic and Upstream and it presents a fairly straightforward way of understanding how the U.S. government can grab information.
Oliver and his team asked the NSA and White House to talk about these laws and programs,, but both bodies declined comment.
Though many couldn't correctly identify Snowden, he has at least a few fans in the United States; a small group of artists managed to sneak in a bust of Edward Snowden in a Brooklyn park.
More about John oliver, edward snowden, Nsa, National security agency, Patriot act
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