Can John Oliver Get Americans to Care About Encryption?

On last night’s episode, the late-night host took Apple’s side in its legal case against the FBI.

Evan Agostini / Invision / AP

Updated March 14, 2016

It’s not every day that cryptography comes up during one of the U.S.’s most popular late-night shows. But last night, the “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver devoted the majority of the half-hour episode to the increasingly hostile debate over encryption.

Several different polls indicate that the complex disagreement between Apple and the FBI has confused and divided Americans—but Oliver thrives at explaining thorny issues. He’s had success in the past getting people to care about less-than-sexy issues like net neutrality and civil forfeiture. And in a very public fight between two very recognizable American organizations, it’s possible that he may be the one to bring encryption as close to a dinner-table topic as it’ll ever get.

In the Sunday-night episode, he admitted that there’s no easy way to settle the debate, but he listed off the reasons that convinced him to side with Apple.

“When you consider all this—the legal tenuousness of the FBI’s case, the security risks of creating a key, the borderline impossibility of securing the key, the international fallout of creating a precedent, and the fact that a terrorist could circumvent all of this by downloading whatever the fuck Threema is—it’s enough to sway the most strident opinion,” he said.

(Threema is one of hundreds of freely available secure-messaging apps that are protected by strong encryption. Threema is a Swiss company, so it would not be affected by future U.S. laws that might weaken encryption.)

According to some of the people who were consulted for the show, John Oliver’s team spent weeks speaking to technology experts and advocates. They reached out to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Open Technology Institute at New America Foundation, as well as independent experts like Matt Blaze, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who was featured in the episode.

A “Last Week Tonight” staffer said that the show consulted the FBI and Justice Department as well.

Given Oliver’s conclusions, it wasn’t surprising that the technology community seemed very happy with how the episode turned out. “John Oliver and his team have a track record of distilling complex subjects into easy-to-understand and hilarious explainers, and their recent piece on encryption is no different,” said Ross Schulman, the senior policy counsel at the Open Technology Institute. “It was a complete and accurate analysis of the many reasons backdoors in our devices are a horrible idea.”

A spokesperson for the Justice Department wouldn’t comment on the episode.

Even though he came down on Apple’s side on encryption, Oliver couldn’t resist sending up the company for its sometimes-hokey TV ads. (On one of the color options for the latest iPhone: “Rose gold looks like somebody vomited a salmon dinner on a pair of ballet shoes.”)

At the end of the episode, he played his own, “more honest” Apple ad.

“We’re barely one step ahead of hackers at all times,” the announcer says in the fake ad. “So when the FBI comes to us and asks if we can undermine our encryption without compromising everyone else’s emails, texts, and skateboarding videos, this is our response: ‘Are you fucking kidding me? We’re engineers, not wizards!’”

It ends with a cheery tagline. “Apple: Join us as we dance madly on the lip of the volcano.”