Sketchy Bogus Crowdfunding Campaigns To 'Buy' Congress's Private Web Browsing... Only Now Realize That's Impossible
from the well,-duh dept
Look, we warned everyone about this. Right after Congress stupidly stripped privacy protections so that ISPs could more actively sell your data (and make it harder for you to realize it or do anything about it), there were a few crowdfunding campaigns that popped up on GoFundMe, claiming that they were raising money to then buy the web browsing data of Congress. We pointed out at the time that this was dumb and dangerous because you can't just go buy someone's web surfing data. That's not how any of this works. But, you know, it was one of those stories that people just really, really wanted to believe, so apparently unaware of it being flat out impossible (more people should read Techdirt...), tons and tons of people donated tons and tons of money, without realizing there was absolutely no way these campaigns could do what they they claimed. The more well-known campaign, by a self-declared "privacy activist" named Adam McElhaney, ended up raising over $200k (despite others claiming that it looked like a pure scam). The slightly lesser well-known one, by actor Misha Collins, took in just under $90k. Between them, they raised about $300k... with promises of obtaining data that anyone with any knowledge of the situation would know they couldn't obtain.
So, uh, take a wild guess what has happened? If you guess they didn't get any data with that money, well give yourself a prize, because that's exactly 100% what happened.
And... some of the folks snookered into handing over the cash for something that was pretty clearly bogus are... not happy. Many have been requesting refunds. McElhaney is now claiming that he was never planning to buy the data from ISPs, but rather get it by FOIA, though he's now admitting in a GoFundMe update that it's not working either:
When I started, I said I wanted to get the internet histories of those who voted for this law.
That has not changed.
What I didn't mention was *WHERE* I planned on getting the data. If I told you that I was going to come after your web habits, your search history, you might - as I imagine many of you did - change what you look up on your home computers. This is what I wanted our legislators to think - their home internet connections where being targeted. When in fact I was coming for their office server data. That data is subject to Freedom of Information Act requests and very obtainable.
Even if they didn't change their habits the data stored in their work proxy servers would still be a trove of information. Maybe even more telling than home.
The reason I am telling this to you now is, I think the cat is out-of-the-bag. After the first forty paper requests went out, a few days later I was contacted by a friend who happens to work in the offices of a senators. She said that word is getting around that "the GoFundMe guy that has raised all that money for privacy is trying to get our work internet history."
Now after about 80 paper requests have gone out, I have received responses back from three. They simply stated they do not have the data I requested. Oddly enough they were all requests for the same person, Marsha Blackburn. But, it makes sense. I am in Tennessee and three of her offices are in Tennessee so the mail would have gotten to her offices faster. After that I have received no other responses.
He then notes that anyone who wants a refund should request it and GoFundMe would return the money -- but for those who didn't request a return, he'd hand the money over to EFF. Hopefully that is true -- EFF obviously does great work. But, still, this whole episode is an unfortunate one. There remain very real issues around the privacy rules being killed and the way in which ISPs handle our private info. But going nuts and exaggerating the situation helped no one (well, perhaps EFF will benefit in the end... but still not the best way to handle this). Keeping things in perspective and accurate is important. Flying off the handle and assuming you can just go buy everyone's internet browsing history without actually understanding the legal change that was happening was dumb -- and it was dumb that many in the press helped make the story go viral without any explanation that it was bullshit. If you want to donate to organizations for doing good work, donate to them directly -- not through some sketchy scheme like these.