Obfuscation: how leaving a trail of confusion can beat online surveillance

At the heart of Cambridge University, there’s a library tower filled with 200,000 forgotten books. Rumoured by generations of students to hold the campus collection of porn, Sir Gilbert Scott’s tower is, in fact, filled with pocket books. Guides, manuals, tales and pamphlets for everyday life, deemed insufficiently scholarly for the ordinary collection, they stand preserved as an extraordinary relic of past preoccupations.

One new guide in the handbook tradition – and one that is decidedly on point for 2015 – is the slim, black, cloth-bound volume, Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, published by MIT Press. A collaboration between technologist Finn Brunton and philosopher Helen Nissenbaum, both of New York University, Obfuscation packs utility, charm and conviction into its tightly-composed 100-page core. This is a thin book, but its ambition is vast.

Brunton and Nissenbaum aim to start a “big little revolution” in the data-mining and surveillance business, by “throwing some sand in the gears, kicking up dust and making some noise”. Specifically, the authors champion the titular term, obfuscation, or “the addition of ambiguous, confusing, or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and data collection projects”. The objective of such measures is to thwart profiling, “to buy time, gain cover, and hide in a crowd of signals”.

From poker to CacheCloak
More than 30 colourful examples – instructive vignettes in their own right – are used to build the case. Roughly a third are analogue, and the images stick. War-era choppers generating radar chaff. False tells in poker. Iconic movie scenes, like the switching briefcases in The Thomas Crown Affair, or the powerful “I am Spartacus” moment in Kubrick’s 1960 epic. The authors bring in orb-making spiders, sim-card shuffles, loyalty-card swap meets, “babble tapes” (a digital file played in the background of a conversation in order to obscure it – all examples where the individual merges with the tribe; where false signals muddy the genuine; where noise and quick feet offer “weapons of the weak”...


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