John Oliver's Solution to Online Data Tracking: Blackmailing Congress with Their Own Data

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John Oliver's Solution to Online Data Tracking: Blackmailing Congress with Their Own Data

In case you hadn’t heard, nothing’s really private these days. Part of accepting computers into every aspect of our daily lives meant letting those computers track every single thing we do on them, and that information is promptly used by a variety of companies to make a quick buck. You know how you can mention something in conversation to a friend and then see a web ad for the same thing later that same day? Yeah, that’s not a coincidence.

In last night’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver dug into this extremely lucrative world of data tracking. Along the way he touches on something that even those who realize how much they’re tracked online may not be aware of: that, even when data is “de-identified,” it’s still extremely easy to pin a real person on supposedly anonymous online data. That info might get scraped and sold off to marketers, but normal people can access it if they pay for it, with potentially traumatic results. The internet is leaking our most private information every single day, and it’s remarkably easy for anybody to get access to it.

Oliver’s argument, obviously, is that somebody needs to do something about this—with the appropriate “somebody,” in this case, being Congress. And so this 25 minute segment ends with a patented Oliver twist: he actually set up his own data tracking account, collecting information on the demographic most likely to be in Congress (45-year-old and older white men living within a certain radius surrounding D.C.) I assume this technically isn’t blackmail—I’m pretty sure TV shows are still not legally allowed to blackmail people—but it might be close enough. Pointing to how quickly Congress passed a 1988 law regulating the distribution of private video store rental information, Oliver lays out how quickly and sweepingly Congress can act to preserve personal data when they’re worried their own info might be exposed, and then threatens to release all the information from their D.C. data set if the very same tactics Oliver took to receive them aren’t illegalized. It’s the kind of thing Oliver does so well, and that nobody else even attempts: an inspired and hilarious bit of activist journalism that aims to make things a little bit better for people and a little bit worse for the companies and institutions that exploit them. Check out the whole segment below.