Edward Snowden tells John Oliver how the government is collecting everyone’s ‘dick pics’ in this video interview

Snowden’s ‘dick pic’ interview

Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden sat down with comedian John Oliver to chat about US government surveillance debate in terms all Americans can understand

Former US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who blew the whistle on mass government surveillance, has dodged questions about whether he had read all the classified documents he leaked to the public and explained the practical realities of the mass data collection in terms most internet users clearly understand: how easily the government can access your “dick pics”.

Snowden made the rare face-to-face interview with comedian and host of satirical program Last Week Tonight John Oliver, who proved once again he does journalism better than many professional journalists. Oliver travelled to Moscow a week ago to speak to Snowden, who sought asylum in Russia after going public with the material.

Oliver, who has fiercely resisted being labelled a journalist in the past, pushed Snowden with a direct and challenging line of questioning in parts of the interview about whether he had actually read all the documents he leaked, asserting that there had been “f…-ups”, as Oliver termed them

Edward Snowden opened up in an interview with John Oliver.

Edward Snowden opened up in an interview with John Oliver.

Snowden replied that he had evaluated and “understood” all the documents, but would not confirm that he had actually read them.

The British host and his subject also provided perhaps the simplest explanation yet for how the surveillance program actually worked, using the nude pictures people send to each other online as an example.

“This is the most visible line in the sand for people,” said Oliver, “can they see my dick?”

Non-journalist John Oliver showed his interview skills while talking to Edward Snowden.

Non-journalist John Oliver showed his interview skills while talking to Edward Snowden.

Snowden told him that while there was of course no ‘Dick Pic Program’, “they are still collecting everybody’s information, including your dick pics”.

Oliver then lead Snowden through a series of detailed questions about different National Security Agency programs and whether they could see or collect this type of picture, with Snowden explaining how in most cases, they could.

“If you have your email somewhere like Gmail, hosted on servers overseas or transferred overseas, or at any time, crosses over borders outside the United States, your junk ends up on the database,” Snowden told him.

Snowden has been interviewed before, including by the Guardian, which broke the original NSA story, and in the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour, and had previously discussed how the NSA viewed people’s private, naked photographs.

But the wry execution of the latest interview sparked huge interest when it was screened on Sunday night and went viral on Monday in the United States. It also once again earned Oliver praise for his journalistic ability.

The terms under which the interview were brokered are not known – HBO, the network which screens Last Week Tonight, “respectfully declined” to respond to questions on the interview from Fairfax Media. Snowden certainly seemed caught off guard during several segments of the interview, suggesting he was not expecting many of the questions which came up.

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The episode is likely to fuel further discussion about whether Last Week Tonight, which each week tackles a current event or real issue with humour, should best be defined as journalism or comedy, or some hybrid of both.

Oliver has made headlines before with his work on the show, revealing discrepancies in the claims about scholarships made by the Miss America pageant, or delving into the tactics used by tobacco companies to thwart regulation around the world.

His work certainly achieves journalistic ends through journalistic means – interviewing or evaluating primary sources, pursuing information in the public interest, explaining events and concepts and disclosing new information to his audience.

But like the outgoing host of The Daily Show, Jon Stewart, Oliver has repeatedly eschewed any label that even incorporates “journalism”, telling the New York Times last year: “We are making jokes about the news and sometimes we need to research things deeply to understand them, but it’s always in service of a joke. If you make jokes about animals, that does not make you a zoologist. We certainly hold ourselves to a high standard and fact-check everything, but the correct term for what we do is ‘comedy’.”

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Henry Sapiecha

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