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John Oliver cracks wise on Apple versus FBI

The comedian also pokes fun at Donald Trump's Apple boycott and at the company's "rose gold" iPhone.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read
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John Oliver talks about the encryption standoff between Apple and the FBI on his HBO show "Last Week Tonight" on March 13, 2016.

HBO/Screenshot by CNET

Now that the heavyweights of the tech world have had their say on the battle between Apple and the FBI, it's time for the comedians to weigh in.

The latest figure to opine on the tussle is television host John Oliver, who put his own spin on the issue in his HBO show, "Last Week Tonight," which aired Sunday evening.

With his signature mix of outrage and wit, Oliver laid into the daunting topic of encryption, the technology that scrambles information to protect it from prying eyes, and the tricky balance between personal privacy and national security. How better to do that than with commentary, parody and jokes about pictures of genitalia?

Oliver came out in support of Apple's position, but stopped well short of fanboy territory. His 16-minute rant, nuanced in its look at the virtues and flaws of both sides' arguments, culminated in a skit about shaky iPhone security cut from real Apple ad footage.

The HBO funnyman can be hugely influential, even on arcane technology matters that the average person might shy away from. Two years ago, he helped draw such massive attention to the issue of Net neutrality that public comment on the matter overwhelmed the government's servers.

Since mid-February, Apple and the US government have been engaged in a very public and no-holds-barred legal confrontation over an iPhone 5C tied to December's San Bernardino terrorist shooting, which left 14 dead. The FBI wants Apple to bypass the phone's security software to help in its investigation of that incident, but the tech titan is refusing, arguing that its compliance would result a "backdoor" that would leave all iPhones more vulnerable to hackers.

Where that danger could threaten individual users and businesses, Apple's compliance could also set a precedent that would put the entire industry at risk, according to a tech community that has rallied around Apple.

Oliver drilled in on this element of the debate. "An encrypted phone is not really like a bank or a safe," he said. "If you penetrate a safe, you've only penetrated that safe. But a code to open a phone could be modified to many more phones."

The FBI maintains that this is a one-time affair that won't affect iPhones at large.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Oliver episode. The FBI could not be reached for comment.

Oliver also took a shot at the declaration by Donald Trump, the Republican presidential hopeful, that people should boycott Apple until the Cupertino, California-based company complies with the FBI. "I just thought of it," said Oliver, echoing Trump's own words, before adding: "Give me another one. Israel and Palestine? Make them wrestle in those fake sumo costumes."

In a bid to balance his jibes, Oliver also took aim Apple, which in defiance of the FBI has said it's not capable of just rustling up a skeleton key to the iPhone on demand.

But if the government believes Apple has magic powers, Oliver said, well, that's Apple's own fault. Consider the company's ads that have linked it to both Einstein and Gandhi, or have claimed that its products can change the world.

In an additional dig at the company, Oliver said Apple's "rose gold" iPhone "looks like someone vomited a salmon dinner onto a pair of dirty ballet shoes."