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Putting the dick pic on the Snowden story

April 17, 2015

I’m on record complaining about how journalists dumb down stories in blind pursuit of “naming the victim” or otherwise putting a picture on the story.

But then again, sometimes that’s exactly what you need to do, especially when the story is super complicated. Case in point: the Snowden revelations story.

In the past 2 weeks I’ve seen the Academy Award winning feature length film CitizenFour, I’ve read Bruce Schneier’s recent book, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles To Collect Your Data And Control Your World, and finally I watched John Oliver’s recent Snowden episode.

They were all great in their own way. I liked Schneier’s book, it was a quick read, and I’d recommend it to people who want to know more than Oliver’s interview shows us. He’s very very smart, incredibly well informed, and almost completely reasonable (unlike this review).

To be honest, though, when I recommend something to other people, I pick John Oliver’s approach; he cleverly puts the dick pic on the story (you have to reset it to the beginning):

Here’s the thing that I absolutely love about Oliver’s interview. He’s not absolutely smitten by Snowden, but he recognizes Snowden’s goal, and makes it absolutely clear what it means to people using the handy use case of how nude pictures get captured in the NSA dragnets. It is really brilliant.

Compared to Schneier’s book, Oliver is obviously not as informational. Schneier is a world-wide expert on security, and gives us real details on which governmental programs know what and how. But honestly, unless you’re interested in becoming a security expert, that isn’t so important. I’m a tech nerd and even for me the details were sometimes overwhelming.

Here’s what I want to concentrate on. In the last part of the book, Schneier suggests all sorts of ways that people can protect their own privacy, using all sorts of encryption tools and so on. He frames it as a form of protest, but it seems like a LOT of work to me.

Compare that to my favorite part of the Oliver interview, when Oliver asks Snowden (starting at minute 30:28 in the above interview) if we should “just stop taking dick pics.” Snowden’s answer is no: changing what we normally do because of surveillance is a loss of liberty, even if it’s dumb.

I agree, which is why I’m not going to stop blabbing my mouth off everywhere (I don’t actually send naked pictures of myself to people, I think that’s a generational thing).

One last thing I can’t resist saying, and which Schneier discusses at length: almost every piece of data collected about us by our government is more or less for sale anyway. Just think about that. It is more meaningful for people worried about large scale discrimination, like me, than it is for people worried about case-by-case pinpointed governmental acts of power and suppression.

Or, put it this way: when we are up in arms about the government having our dick pics, we forget that so do our phones, and so does Facebook, or Snapchat, not to mention all the backups on the cloud somewhere.

  1. April 17, 2015 at 9:50 am

    Although AFAIK there are no pictures of my penis, I am happy to let the government have a picture in order to feel safe and secure in NYC. To me that’s a worthwhile tradeoff, but your mileage may vary. OTOH, if the government keeps veering to the left and starts to resemble communist countries (I was born in Hungary) then I would be deeply concerned, as history has shown us what communist regimes do with your personal data. See, for example, the German movie: The Lives of Others.



    • April 17, 2015 at 9:55 am

      Amazing movie Abe.


      • Josh
        April 17, 2015 at 10:14 am

        I agree “Lives of Others” is a great movie and a warning about the direction things are going.

        But so much else I don’t understand about your comment.

        Why does the mass surveillance make you feel safer?

        What makes you say “government keeps veering to the left”?

        Perhaps we perceive it differently because I don’t see the East German government as “left” and think that reducing politics to a one-dimensional measure often isn’t helpful.


        • April 17, 2015 at 12:08 pm

          Mass surveillance makes it safer for those of us with nothing to hide from a democratic government, but plenty to hide from a communist government.

          Veering to the left is what has been happening for the last six years on the federal level, and a shorter time in NYC since our mayoral election.

          Communism is the theoretical fulfillment of “left.” A society where all people are equal. No wage inequality. No gender gap. But as my grandfather once said: “Communism is the best system for man but mankind is not ready for it (and will never be).”



  2. Josh
    April 17, 2015 at 9:57 am

    Great comment. John Oliver does a great job of answering the question “if I’m not breaking the law, why should I care” in a way people may actually care about.

    I also agree with Snowden that if we change our behavior, we are losing our liberty. But, we should be working to stop the surveillance — both government and corporate.

    Trying to protect privacy by using the right apps is hopeless though I do believe in doing simple things to make it more difficult (and opting out whenever possible). It makes the tracking less profitable. Also, using things like NoScript make you very aware of how much corporate data collection there is and may motivate people to try to stop it.


  3. April 17, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    @mathbabedotorg : “One last thing I can’t resist saying, and which Schneier discusses at length: almost every piece of data collected about us by our government is more or less for sale anyway.”

    It’s hard for me to interpret Schneier as saying “almost every piece” with respect to the totality of NSA acquisitive capability (as opposed to what most shocks the media). He has said, since 2006, that it is “highly probable” (if not yet provable) that the NSA has had backdoor access to virtually all encrypted data, and still does for such data that is still ignorantly using the NSA-promoted world-wide protocol. This wasn’t/isn’t just idiotic, voluntary social sharing, this is “almost every piece” of confidential, proprietary, security and financial data on Earth.


  4. Josh
    April 17, 2015 at 4:33 pm

    @abecohen: thanks for the reply and the reference. If you are going to use income equality as your measure (more equal left, less equal right), it seems we are veering to the right. To some extent,Obama is pushing to “the left” on this measure but clearly our “repeal the estate tax” Congress is not and the empirical result has been to less equality.

    But, more importantly, you are falling into a fallacy (very well skewered by Jordan Ellenberg in “How not to be wrong”) of assuming (or acting like you assume) that if someone thinks the income distribution should be more equal than it is today, That is equivalent to saying that if we lower taxes we are on the way to zero taxes.

    Finally, as to the wikipedia reference, it says the left includes anarchists as well as communists. The right includes fascists as well as “right-libertarians” (a circular definition). Both contain a number of mutually-conflicting ideologies. Which is why I find the attempt to have a one-dimensional spectrum unhelpful.


  1. April 22, 2015 at 11:40 am
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