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Last Week Tonight host John Oliver just blackmailed Congress

Published Apr 11th, 2022 9:24PM EDT
last week tonight host john oliver
Image: Paula Lobo/HBO

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Companies playing fast and loose with user data online is certainly not a new phenomenon, but one whose practitioners continue to get more egregious and brazen over time, it seems. Google banned dozens of apps from the Google Play Store in recent days, for example, after discovering that they were secretly harvesting data. On Sunday’s episode of John Oliver’s HBO show Last Week Tonight, meanwhile, he attacked a different aspect of the same problem: Data brokers.

The short version: You know those shady companies that buy up your digital data, then turn around and sell it to other parties? Well, that’s what Oliver’s segment focused on. But check out what he did.

“Your privacy should be the default setting here”

This time, Oliver and his staff became the buyer in the aforementioned scenario. They bought data on individuals with specific traits that US congressmen would have. They also had a digital footprint within five miles of the Capitol building. So, a fishing expedition, in other words.

However, Oliver & Co. apparently did catch something. Per our sister publication Rolling Stone, the host was coy about what they found. But it seems they were able to not only identify more than one specific lawmaker from the data obtained. They also got their hands on “potentially problematic search histories.” Making this all even more eyebrow-raising, Oliver kind of, sort of, seemed to blackmail Congress by suggesting that they really ought to pass a law making this kind of thing illegal.

Otherwise — oops, right?

“The entire economy of the internet right now is basically built on this practice,” Oliver told viewers. “All the free stuff that you take for granted online is only free because you are the product.”

He went on to direct iPhone users to head to their privacy menu and look for the tracking setting. Then, turn off the allowance of apps requesting to track you. But that shouldn’t be on you, he continued. “Your privacy should be the default setting here.”

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver Season 9

Apple originally introduced the App Tracking Transparency feature, which companies like Peloton and Meta have blamed for huge losses, in iOS 14.5. The point of the system is to allow consumers to decide when and how much an app can track their usage across other applications.

Last Week Tonight, meanwhile, returned for its ninth season on Sunday, February 20. It airs from 11-11:30 pm ET on HBO, and it’s available to stream on HBO Max.

The series has received 23 Emmys since premiering in 2014. Last year, according to WarnerMedia, “the series won the Emmy for Outstanding Variety Talk Series as well as Outstanding Writing for a Variety Series, both for the sixth year in a row.”

More HBO coverage: For more Netflix news, check out our coverage of the latest new HBO movies and series to watch.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.