What the Heck is a Data Broker? John Oliver Breaks it Down

Written by Internet Safety Labs
May 11, 2022

We frequently get asked questions about data brokers. We believe a meaningful discussion about them requires detail and nuance, in order to accurately explain the power and control these types of organizations can have over the public, especially for higher-risk communities.  

It’s complicated

Data brokers create real privacy threats by systematically assembling thousands of data points for each and every man, woman, and child on the planet—or at least ones that use digital technology. There are hundreds of data brokers globally, most of whom you’ve never heard of. All of them need far greater scrutiny. However, we cannot let the scale of the problem distract from reforming these companies through new laws, better enforcement of existing laws, and/or changes made by large ad tech companies at the “top of the user data supply chain.” 

We also don’t want to make data brokers out to be boogeymen. But the truth about the risks of data brokers is oftentimes scary, despite simultaneously being quite technical and unexciting to the untrained eye. To understand the harmful effects of data brokers, one must focus on their buying and selling of IP address/network data, which is exposed to websites and apps, and all the vendors who collect data within them.  

John Oliver Explains the Harms

Any discussion about data brokers almost immediately veers into technical concepts and complex hidden partnership data flows and metadata fields that are hard to visualize if you don’t have a technical background.  Fortunately, HBO’s John Oliver recently dedicated over 25 minutes of his show to a segment on data brokers. It’s a must-watch (and share!) piece of television for everyone who wants their friends and family to better understand data brokers and the risks they create for the public.  

You can watch the 25 minute clip on YouTube (plus an ironic reminder that, YouTube is owned by Google, the owner of the largest global advertising network), here . 

We Continue to Dive Deeply into Data Brokers 

Over the coming months, we plan to dig deeper into data brokers and the ways that user data is shared in unexpected and risky ways. If you’ve got any specific questions you are hoping to have answered, please reach out to us at 

Learn More

If you’re looking to do some of your own research into data brokers, the California Data Broker Registry ( ), and the Vermont Data Broker registry ( ), include the names of registered data brokers and their website, along with additional details about how they operate. If you find anything interesting, we’d love to have you drop us a line with details!