Sunday night’s episode of Last Week Tonight tackles online data brokers, with John Oliver giving a good summary of the industry and its practices.

Oliver, besides getting in one last AT&T burn — HBO as of Friday is now owned by Warner Bros. Discovery – starts by explaining that data brokers are responsible for the phenomenon of “being targeted by ads for something oddly specific.” 

… what all these companies have in common is they collect your personal information and then resell or share it with others. As one expert puts it, they’re the middlemen of surveillance capitalism.

This segment acknowledges that the majority of people take data collection by either companies or the government as a given, but is focused on bringing to light how “data brokers operate in a sprawling unregulated ecosystem which can get very creepy, very fast.”

The truth is when it comes to data brokers, they know significantly more about you than you might like and do significantly more with it than you might think.

There’s an overview on browser cookies: First-party ones (placed by the sites you actively visit) are essential to the web for everything from shopping carts, tracking past visits, and sign-in (authentication). 

… the practice gradually evolved to include third-party cookies. Basically companies other than the site that you are on planting a piece of code in your browser that allows them to track where else you are going on the internet.

These brokers take information from the web, as well as location info from phone apps that give it away, combine data into profiles that can get quite granular, and sell them — quite liberally — to more than just “businesses who want to market to you.” The practice of data de-identification before sharing is also criticized given how easy it is to reverse engineer.

The whole piece is worth a watch, with Oliver making the key point that the “entire economy of the internet right now is basically built on this practice” and that changes are “tricky.” To mitigate, Last Week Tonight pointed people to a list of privacy-preserving browsers — it will be interesting to see whether their downloads benefit from the “John Oliver bump.” iPhone users are advised to turn off “Allow Apps to Request to Track” under Settings > Privacy > Tracking. (The rough Android equivalent of that is the ability to “Opt out of Ads Personalization” from Settings > “Google” settings > Ads. 

For its part, Google’s Privacy Sandbox initiative is phasing out third-party cookies in Chrome by 2023, while Android will introduce more privacy-preserving advertising approaches.

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Abner Li

Editor-in-chief. Interested in the minutiae of Google and Alphabet. Tips/talk: