John Oliver busts data brokers, drives Congress to action


Data brokers know if you have cancer, diabetes or a baby on the way. You might think this is illegal under HIPAA — but as John Oliver revealed on his show “Last Week Tonight,” many data brokers reveal highly sensitive medical information. To urge Congress to restrict data collection, he essentially blackmailed lawmakers with private data he had obtained legally.

Now, before we go any further, a quick disclaimer: I’m not going to get political with this article. But it’s pretty big news in the data collection world, so I want to tell you about it. Tap or click here to see which apps collect the most data about you.

If you’re wondering who John Oliver is, don’t worry – I’ve got you. I’ll lay out who he is, what his show was about and why this story is so great. Keep reading to find out how this late-night comedy show could finally push Congress to curb data brokerage.

expect surveillance

When you browse the web without special protection, nothing you do is private. There are countless ways you are followed, like John Oliver broke down on his last “Last week tonightepisode. He is a British-American comedian known for political commentary.

His show revealed that data brokers know your name, age, salary, marital status, sexuality, religion and more. These companies see you as an item on a menu. They categorize you into groups with names like Couples with Clout, Ambitious Singles, Boomers and Boomerangs, Golf Carts and Gourmets and so on.

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Here is a real example

It’s all so marketers can better sell you stuff they think you’ll like. But it can feel incredibly invasive. As Oliver noted, you can opt out of certain types of data collection. Tap or click here for a tool you can use to find and opt out of all sites that collect your data.

Fortunately, there are a few ways you can curb the tracking, such as going to Settings on your iPhone, clicking Privacy, and turning off the switch that says allow apps to request tracking. On your Android, go to Settings > Google > Ads and toggle the Opt Out of Ads Personalization switch.

Not all sites let you take back control, though

As Oliver said on this show, there is no federal law that requires data brokers to honor opt-out requests. He pointed out that this can be incredibly dangerous for victims of domestic violence. An abuser can buy a victim’s information for as little as $45, as private data isn’t always expensive.

Oliver also dropped some bombshells on his audience. Here’s an example:

The lack of regulation here doesn’t just benefit individuals who may want to harm you. It also benefits the government, as it gives them a very attractive loophole for Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures.

John Oliver, last week tonight

This is what he means. The Fourth Amendment requires government officials to obtain a warrant before collecting information about you without your consent. But if government officials want to save themselves some time, they can just buy the information from a data broker.

I have written about this lack of regulation before. My podcast, Kim Komando Today, did a deep dive into how businesses and government organizations can buy your private data. Tap or click here to listen to this episode.

Why hasn’t Congress capped data brokerage?

As always, follow the money. The Markup reports that data brokers put a lot of money into lobbying. Their spending rivaled Facebook and Google in 2020, The layout reports

To show Congress how invasive record-keeping is, Oliver’s team placed three targeted ads in the Capitol Hill area. From that one ad, they extracted people’s IP addresses, device IDs, and more. He urged lawmakers to take action to limit this kind of invasive tracking. Check it out for yourself here:

If this guide to John Oliver and data brokerage made you nervous, I’ve got some good news. I’ve written a lot of guides on how to protect your data. I’ll tell you how to opt out of tracking and give you some safe options for search engines, emails, and more.

Check out these resources

Ranked: Best Browsers for Privacy

Easy ways to stop advertisers from following you online

Kim’s Privacy How-to: Encrypt Your Emails and Text Messages


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