Speed Reads


John Oliver goes to 'creepy' lengths to persuade Congress to enact online privacy laws

"We've all had unsettling moments when it became clear that our computer was monitoring our activities a little more closely than we might like," hitting us with "oddly specific" ads, John Oliver said on Sunday's Last Week Tonight. "And tonight we're going to talk about who make that possible: Data brokers," the "middlemen of surveillance capitalism."

"Data brokers operate in a sprawling, unregulated ecosystem which can get very creepy, very fast," Oliver said. "They know significantly more about you than you might like, and do significantly more with it than you might think." You may not care about your online breadcrumbs being collected and sold, or "you may be thinking, Okay, I think I get it, I am sufficiently creeped out, there is nothing more that you need to tell me," he added. Well, "what about the fact that apps on your phone can give away your exact location to third parties, sometimes without you even knowing it?"

So, "we've got shady data brokers with virtually no oversight collecting your data and building profiles that can track who you are, where you are, and what you are mostly likely to do or buy; you cannot edit this dossier; and others, from cops to reporters to your own abusers, can find and use this information," Oliver recapped. "It's not a great situation," but it's also "a bit tricky, especially given the fact that the entire economy of the internet right now it basically built on this practice. All the free stuff that you take for granted online is only free because you are the product."

"There are actually some small steps that you can personally take," but "this should not be your responsibility: Your privacy should be the default setting here," Oliver argued. Lawmakers have little incentive to act, because they also buy and use your data, but "it seems when Congress' own privacy is at risk, they somehow find a way to act," he added. "And it also seems like they're not entirely aware just how easy it is for anyone — and I do mean anyone — to get their personal information." If you are a semi-regular viewer of Last Week Tonight, you can probably see were Oliver is headed here. Even he says he found the collection of what's essentially cyber-blackmail material "f----ing creepy" — as was, presumably, watching someone at the Capitol click on his ad for Ted Cruz erotic fan fiction.