John Oliver pointed out Sunday night that no one is really anonymous online ― and a complete lack of government oversight and regulation has allowed users to be tracked and monitored in very unsettling ways.
“We have all found ourselves targeted by ads for something oddly specific and thought, ’How on Earth did they know to show me that?’” he said.
Here’s how: data brokers.
“They collect your personal information, and they resell or share it with others,” he said, adding that these companies operate “in a sprawling, unregulated ecosystem which can get very creepy, very fast.”
They maintain lists on people with everything from specific sexual preferences to diseases and ailments ― and will sell them to anyone. One company even sold specific locations of its users.
Oliver said the system is hard to change.
“The entire economy of the internet right now is basically built on this practice,” he said. “All the free stuff that you take for granted online is only free because you are the product. They make money by selling your data.”
Oliver offered some ways to minimize what’s tracked and sold, but said what’s really needed is comprehensive federal legislation.
Lawmakers have been unwilling to act, but Oliver said they might want to when they realize “just how easy it is for anyone ― and I do mean anyone ― to get their personal information.”
“Anyone,” in this case, includes Oliver himself, who pulled out a manilla envelope with information he obtained via a “fucking creepy” exercise involving targeted ads in the Capitol Hill area and tracking data that could be de-anonymized to match to specific people.
“If you’re thinking, ‘How on Earth is any of this legal?’ I totally agree with you. It shouldn’t be,” he said. “And if you happen to be a legislator who is feeling a little nervous right now about whether your information is in this envelope, and if you’re terrified about what I might do with it, you might want to channel that worry into making sure that I can’t do anything.”
Then, he cheerfully concluded: “Anyway, sleep well!”
See his full segment from Sunday’s “Last Week Tonight” below: