John Oliver threatens to blackmail Congress with online data if they don't protect citizens

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Typically renowned for making fun of politicians on Late Night TV, John Oliver has taken a wild turn into blackmail. During Sunday's episode of Last Week Tonight, the television host threatened to release the online data of members of Congress. Of course, that data is expected to be rather spicy.

Why did John Oliver blackmail Congress?

On Sunday evening, comedic video journalist John Oliver discussed the online spread of data brokers. Oliver explained that data brokers use online exploits to collect data on individuals that can be sold, spread or used to blackmail people.

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“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.”

As part of the segment, Oliver’s team paid data brokers to harvest data on Members of Congress. The team purchased bundles of information looking into Congress workers. Using data brokers, Oliver received information on a group of men 45-years-old within a five mile radius of Capitol Hill who: “visited sites regarding – or searched for terms including – divorce, massage, hair loss, and midlife crisis.”

John Oliver called out legislators who are not already working to protect user data from brokers online. The television host called out congressman by saying:

“If you’re thinking: ‘How on earth is any of this legal?’ I totally agree with you! It should not be. If you happen to be a legislator who is feeling a little nervous right now about whether your information is in this envelope and you are terrified about what I might do with it, you might want to channel that worry into making sure that I cannot do anything.”

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The Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988

John Oliver compared the data broker situation to the Video Privacy Protection Act of 1988. That legislation came into effect after a reporter obtained congressman Robert Bork's video rental history from a local store.

Bork’s video rental history has been described as “unremarkable”, not featuring any vile or explicit content. (Uh, boring!) Nevertheless, it still resulted in legislation protecting congressmen from having their video records leaked.

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Oliver's proposal is simple. The television host explained that if legislators do nothing to protect everyone's data from brokers, then their search queries will somehow make their way online. However, we don't know if the journalist will actually leak the personal data. Then again, if any TV journalist would do it, it’s John Oliver.

As everything moves into the digital space, data protection is paramount. This means that more must be done to make the Internet a better, safer place. Of course, legislation to protect users online is coming decades later than it should've arrived, but that's just how governments work.