What It Takes to Make People Care About NSA Surveillance

John Oliver might have given Edward Snowden an issue Americans truly care about: the right to keep 'dick pics' private.

On Sunday's episode of HBO's "Last Week Tonight," host John Oliver scored a coveted interview with NSA leaker Edward Snowden in Russia.

To get a sense of how big this is, consider that the producers skipped last week's episode in order to make the interview possible, and that Sunday's installment ran 15 minutes over its 30-minute time slot so that the interview could be contextualized and aired in full. (Oliver also became the first person to nab a televised interview with Snowden since Brian Williams did last May.)

So why all the trouble? In theory, Snowden's revelations are old, they have proven to be either inaccessible or not titillating enough for the American public, and Oliver already covered the issue himself on the show in an interview with former NSA chief General Keith Alexander less than a year ago.

As it turns out, Oliver wasn't satisfied. Using the June 1 expiration of controversial sections of the Patriot Act as a peg, Oliver decided to revive the conversation anew by highlighting one specific aspect of the surveillance issue that a majority of Americans could relate to.

And Sunday's final product is earning Oliver plaudits across the Internet. In the interview, Oliver accomplishes several feats. He's not only funny (Snowden apparently misses eating Hot Pockets, the sodium vehicle of the American freezer section), but also incisive and tough.

When Oliver pushes Snowden to admit that his leak made it possible for journalists to accidentally reveal details about American operations abroad, Oliver doesn't let his subject get away with calling it a "problem." He forces Snowden to recognize they constituted a "fuck-up." "You have to own that thing," Oliver chastises. "You’re giving documents with information you know could be harmful which could get out there.”

But most notably of all, Oliver might finally have pinpointed a way to make the debate about surveillance accessible to a wide audience. By honing on one aspect of the government surveillance, the capacity for intelligence agencies to access "dick pics," he captures the attention and summons the outrage of numerous passersby in a filmed segment in Times Square. Many of those interviewed can't properly identify Edward Snowden or don't quite recall what he had done, but all recoil at the thought of government access to intimate photography.

"If I had knowledge that the United States government had pictures of my dick," one man says with dire seriousness, "I would be very pissed off."

"The good news is there's no program named 'The Dick Pic Program,'" Snowden says in response to the video. "The bad news is they are still collecting everyone's information, including your dick pics."

Over at The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald chalks up the fact that few people interviewed by Oliver's team in Times Square knew who Snowden was to a culture of political disengagement. It's the kind of disaffection, he argues, that explains why many Americans can't name the three branches of government. "One reason is that they serve as a rather stinging indictment on the political system which media and political insiders love to glorify: a huge chunk of the population, probably the majority, have simply turned away entirely from politics, presumably out of a belief that it makes no difference in their lives."

We'll have to wait and see whether the Snowden segment captures the national imagination, or even whether it reaches the heights of some of John Oliver's most popular clips. As Snowden told Oliver, "It's a real challenge to figure out how we communicate things that require years and years of technical understanding and compress that into seconds of speech."