John Oliver vows to unleash his "creepy" blackmail on Congress

"Last Week Tonight" host revealed that he paid data brokers for lawmakers' "problematic" internet search histories

Published April 11, 2022 4:01PM (EDT)

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Photo courtesy of HBO)
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Photo courtesy of HBO)

On HBO's "Last Week Tonight," host John Oliver said he found a "creepy" but entirely legal way to blackmail lawmakers — and intends to use it. 

The segment started with Oliver discussing the unsettling experience of receiving targeted advertisements after making a credit card purchase online. "We have all found ourselves targeted by ads for something oddly specific and thought, 'How on Earth did they know to show me that?'" the host said. 

Oliver digs into the explanation behind this phenomenon, telling the audience data brokers collect individuals' personal information online and resell it to interested companies who then use it to market their products. Data brokers and the companies they sell information to "operate in a sprawling, unregulated ecosystem which can get very creepy, very fast," says Oliver. 

The collected data is sometimes placed into packages based on categories such as "Ambitious Singles," "Couples With Clout," and "Kids and Cabernet." Real names that Oliver jokes "sound like immediately green-lit shows on TLC."

Data packages can be made around medical ailments or sexual preferences, real examples include "Suffering Seniors" and "Help Needed—I Am 90 Days Behind With Bills." One of these companies Epsilon settled a lawsuit for $150 million after selling data for 30 million people to scammers targeting senior citizens. 

Oliver points to one case where a stalker killed a former classmate after finding her through information he purchased from a data broker for $45. Federal agencies have also purchased data to carry out investigations leading to arrests and deportations. 

"Your privacy should be the default setting here," said Oliver. "There should be legal fixes to this." While individuals can take steps to make their internet searchers more secure, advocates say what is needed is a comprehensive federal security law. 

"When congress's own privacy is at risk, they somehow find a way to act," said Oliver. The 'Last Week Tonight' host then revealed he paid for data on traits shared by Congressmen within five miles of the US Capitol. Oliver said the data identified specific lawmakers with problematic search histories including clicks on links for "Do you want to read Ted Cruz erotic fiction" and "Can you vote twice?" from within the US Capitol. 

"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'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," said Oliver. "Sleep well!"

Watch the full clip here: 

By Meryl Phair

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Congress Data John Oliver Last Week Tonight Politics Privacy Security