John Oliver on Online Data Brokers: “What They Can Buy Is Quite Disturbing” | John Olivier

John Oliver has taken on the dark art of data brokerage, sounding the alarm about unregulated practices that many internet users are unaware of.

The Last Week Tonight host spoke of the ‘troubling moments’ that often occur throughout the day online, as we find companies are ‘monitoring our activities a little more closely than we would like’ .

He drew attention to data brokers, part of a multi-billion dollar industry that encompasses “everyone from credit reporting companies to those weird people-search websites whenever you google the name of your friend’s sketchy new boyfriend”.

They “collect your personal information and then resell or share it with others” and have previously been labeled as “middlemen of surveillance capitalism”. It’s a sprawling, unregulated ecosystem,” and watching what they do and how they do it can get “very scary, very fast.”

“They know a lot more about you than you think and do a lot more than you would like,” Oliver said.

The main tools are cookies, which allow websites to remember you and have evolved to include third-party cookies, which track where you go on the internet. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a whole crowd of strangers staring at what I’m looking for on the internet,” he said. “Not because it’s disgusting, but because it’s private.”

The process takes the breadcrumb trail of where we’ve been and what we’ve done online, and packages it up to share with marketing companies. Users are then sorted into groups, such as Influential Couples, Ambitious Singles, Boomers and Boomerangs, and Kids and Cabernet.

The dark side of this includes more narrowly focused lists, which separate us by certain ailments or sexual preferences. Surveys have shown that people are defined by their depression, diabetes, cancer and pregnancy. It’s a “system that seems ripe for abuse” because “what they can buy is quite troubling”.

Although the marketing companies claimed the data was anonymous, the process of “de-anonymizing” is quite simple, as Oliver details, because people can be discovered by a quick survey of the data. “None of us are truly anonymous online,” he said.

He called it all “objectively disturbing” and used the example of a priest who was forced to resign after a Catholic newscast used Grindr app data signals and made match his phone to his residence, taking him out.

It’s a “massive and harmful invasion of privacy” and also incredibly dangerous. He used the example of a victim of domestic violence whose address appeared on a data broker’s website. Oliver also shared a horrific story of a stalker who killed a former classmate after finding her with information he brought for $45.

Requesting removal of information is a “complex process” and no federal law requires companies to honor a takedown request.

It also suits the government, as the FBI and Ice have purchased data to aid in criminal investigations and deportations.

“The whole internet economy is basically based on this practice,” he said. “All the free stuff you take for granted online is only free because you are the product.”

He said a comprehensive federal privacy law is needed, but many politicians base their campaigns on the use of personal data.

He used the example of the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988, which passed when Congress panicked when it realized its video rental histories could be shared. “It seems when Congress’s privacy is threatened, they somehow find a way to act,” he said.

To show this, Oliver’s team used “perfectly legal bits of shit” to target members of Congress. They bought ads and showed them to men over 45 in DC who had been looking for divorce, massage, hair loss and midlife crisis, creating a group called Congress and cabernet.

“This whole exercise was fucking scary,” he said with ads pushing divorce aid, Ted Cruz erotic fiction and voting twice. He said it might worry members of Congress who clicked on what. “You might want to channel that worry to make sure I can’t do anything about it,” he said.