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John Oliver's funny, illuminating interview with Edward Snowden

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Sunday's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver took on the National Security Agency's surveillance program and interviewed Edward Snowden in-person in Moscow.

Oliver gave a clear, devastating assessment of the way the NSA does bulk data collection. His take on Section 215, the part of the Patriot Act that allegedly authorizes mass NSA surveillance, is particularly good:

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."

Section 215 is overseen by a secret intelligence court known as the FISA court, and they've interpreted it to mean the government could basically collect and store phone records for every American, the vast majority of whom, of course, have no connection to terrorism.

About 16 minutes into the episode, Oliver sits down with Edward Snowden in Moscow to talk about his disclosures. They discussed one of the big themes in Oliver's monologue — that people didn't care enough about the harms from government surveillance because the problem can just feel too complicated.

Oliver: Did you do this to solve a problem?

Snowden: 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.

Oliver: There's no doubt it is a critical conversation. But is it a conversation that we have the capacity to have? Because it's so complicated that we don't fundamentally understand it.

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."

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