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<nettime> LARB > Rob Horning > Brunton/Nissenbaum, Obfuscation: A User's Guide


Rob Horning on Obfuscation: A User's Guide for Privacy and Protest

Hide and Seek: The Problem with Obfuscation

November 10th, 2015

HERE'S WHAT WE KNOW. By various means of seduction, coercion, and
co-optation, everyday life has been irresistibly colonized by
forces collectively known as Big Data: the corporations and state
agencies that use communications networks and digital
surveillance to amass huge quantities of information on the
activities of individuals and groups in hopes of predicting and
containing their next moves. Short of a total renunciation of the
now routine conveniences of contemporary life and voluntary exile
from the spaces where almost all social belonging and recognition
takes place, you cannot escape.

Improvements in technology have made Big Data's recent conquest
of our culture seem inevitable. "The proximate reasons for the
culture of total surveillance are clear," the software developer
Maciej Ceglowski explained in a recent talk. "Storage is cheap
enough that we can keep everything. Computers are fast enough to
examine this information, both in real time and retrospectively.
Our daily activities are mediated with software that can easily
be configured to record and report everything it sees upstream."
But behind those proximate causes, as Ceglowski points out, are
resilient, long-standing motives that have guided the direction
of technological development for centuries: "State surveillance
is driven by fear. And corporate surveillance is driven by

Obfuscation: A User's Guide for Privacy and Protest, by Finn
Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum, two professors in New York
University's media, culture, and communications department,
starts by treating the dystopian situation described above as
more or less a given. The dominion of Big Data means we are more
or less vulnerable at all times to states and corporations that
cannot be made accountable for their actions. "Data about us are
collected in circumstances we may not understand, for purposes we
may not understand, and are used in ways we may not understand,"
Brunton and Nissenbaum write. We don't know how much data is
collected, nor exactly who is collecting it, nor the names of the
parties they're selling it to, nor how long any of them are
planning on keeping it. Worse, they point out, "we don't know
what near-future algorithms, techniques, hardware, and databases
will be able to do with our data." This means that apparently
inconsequential data about where we go, who we know, what we
search, and what we consume "can potentially provide more
powerful, more nearly complete, and more revealing analyses than
ordinary users could have anticipated -- more revealing, in fact,
than even the engineers and analysts could have anticipated." A
data profile that seems innocent enough now could combine with
future information and as-yet-untested analytical approaches to
become a vector of persecution.

To counter the advance of these inscrutable institutions, Brunton
and Nissenbaum suggest we generate some opacity of our own. To
this end, they outline a variety of techniques of obfuscation --
which they define as "the deliberate addition of ambiguous,
confusing, or misleading information to interfere with
surveillance and data collection" -- that ordinary people can
deploy to camouflage themselves. Despite its subtitle, though,
Obfuscation is not really a how-to book. It has little practical
advice for would-be digital saboteurs. While several techniques
of obfuscation are described and recommended, the authors don't
provide much detail on how to go about implementing them oneself.
There's not even a list of browser extensions one could download
to get started. (The book's first half does offer a brief
compendium of historical examples of obfuscation in action,
ranging from the use of aluminium-lined paper "chaff" to defeat
World War II–era radar to Tor relays that can be used to mask the
sources and destinations of internet traffic.)

Instead, Obfuscation expends the bulk of its energy defending its
own existence. It is haunted at nearly every turn by the voices
of the Big Data propagandists who insist mass data collection is
always and ever for our own good, and that only selfish people
would try to meddle with the reliability of omnipresent
surveillance by being intentionally dishonest. Brunton and
Nissenbaum do their best to take such claims seriously,
committing much of the book's second half to handwringing
discussions of how obfuscation could be ethically justified in
Rawlsian terms. In line with Nissenbaum's earlier work on privacy
and "contextual integrity," they stress the importance of context
for determining when obfuscation is appropriate.

In making the case for obfuscation, Brunton and Nissenbaum freely
admit the ultimate impotence of these techniques, and the
structural weakness of those who have recourse to them. As the
authors are quick to concede, the tactics of obfuscation do
nothing to decrease the asymmetries of power and information they
are designed to disrupt. At best, they only "pollute" the
databases of the powerful, and spur them to do a better job
justifying their data collection and analysis and clarifying
exactly what good they are doing. More often, though, the
"troublemaking" tactics of obfuscation merely buy some time, as
the obfuscators are quickly outwitted by their more powerful
adversaries and must struggle to come up with some other
provisional evasive measure.

Obfuscation consists of ways the weak can temporarily elude the
predations of the powerful, and it is justified with reference to
that disparity. "Sometimes we don't have a choice about having
our data collected," Brunton and Nissenbaum write, "so we may as
well (if we feel strongly about it) put a little sand in the
gears." They draw explicit inspiration from political scientist
James C. Scott's concept of "weapons of the weak." In Scott's
1985 book of that title, he analyzed how oppressed Malaysian
peasants without political agency found other, less overtly
political means to resist: squatting, poaching, petty theft, work
slowdowns, furtive complaints, and so on. Obfuscation, in Brunton
and Nissenbaum's account, works similarly, granting a limited
form of agency to those who can't rely on "wealth, the law,
social sanction, and force" to protect their interests.

The evasions of obfuscation are contingent on acceptance of the
impossibility of genuine escape. They provide means of getting
along under conditions of enemy occupation, not strategies of
revolution or resistance. They consolidate rather than dismantle
the asymmetries of power; they are fugitive, rearguard actions in
the midst of an ongoing collective surrender. As clever and
satisfyingly creative as obfuscation's false flags, diversions,
and decoys can be, they do not speak truth to power so much as
mock it behind its back. Weapons of the weak are for those who
have become resigned to remaining weak.


What is obfuscation good for, then? Brunton and Nissenbaum argue
that it "offers some measure of resistance, obscurity, and
dignity, if not a permanent reconfiguration of control or an
inversion of the entrenched hierarchy." In other words, it
permits gestures of independence that feel satisfying, without
changing the actual conditions of domination. We can flood Google
with false search queries to disguise our real ones, but we can't
effectively agitate for an ad-free search engine, let alone for a
cleaner cultural separation of information and advertising.
Presumably, if enough acts of "data disobedience" are registered,
entities with actual power might take it upon themselves to
devise the "firmer and fairer approaches to regulating
appropriate data practices," as Brunton and Nissenbaum put it.
But more often, the tactics of obfuscation don't scale: the more
people use them, the more incentive corporations and governments
have to devote their superior resources to developing
countertactics, thus quickly closing off whatever vulnerabilities
were revealed. A preoccupation with thwarting surveillance only
emphasizes the futility of the tactics left open to us,
ultimately confirming the system's oppressive strength.

Nor is obfuscation an effective foundation for a collective
democratic politics. As Brunton and Nissenbaum recognize,
obfuscation relies on secrecy and deception, not transparency,
making it much more useful for individual protection than for
public advocacy. In certain respects, privacy-based obfuscation
negates the tendency to protest: it caters to a
self-protectiveness that runs counter to the self-sacrifice that
civic engagement often requires. Obfuscation tends to configure
protest as an assertion of personal privacy rather than
collective public risk-taking.

Then, too, Big Data has developed its own forms of compensation
to offer the populations it has conquered. For the sorts of
people who are conditioned to believe (by dint of habitus,
wealth, or some other type of cultural privilege) that they have
nothing to hide and thus nothing to fear from being closely
watched, constant surveillance can serve as a flattering form of
social recognition. Many of us have learned to consume
surveillance -- even the surveillance of our own bodies -- as
entertainment. It can feel good to be at the center of the
action. Who doesn't derive pleasure from attention, even if it is
only from a social network or a fitness tracker or an algorithm?
The shopping recommendation services, the spurious quizzes, the
awkward year-in-review documentaries on Facebook: these track our
every move and model our anticipated future behavior for our
amusement. They help posit a sense of our "real self," the self
that can be revealed only after massive amounts of data about us
are processed and sorted in conjunction with that of millions of
others. They encourage us to think of ourselves as enthralling
yet solvable mysteries, stories we can enjoy vicariously.

In this way, surveillance becomes both a means to self-knowledge
and a precondition for it. Surveillance calls out to us, hailing
us like rideshares. Obfuscation, for all its potential
usefulness, never escapes this logic. When surveillance makes us
seek lines of flight, it sharpens our awareness of ourselves as
selves, as people having selves worth protecting or concealing
from view. We rely on surveillance to supply a sense of stakes
for the self. The mechanisms that Big Data relies upon to infer
relevance -- the likes, the patterns of communication among other
people in our networks, geographic and biological cues -- are the
same ones we rely on as well. They bring us into focus not only
for our adversaries but for each other and ourselves.

Not only is obfuscation a weapon of the weak, then: it's a very
messy and imprecise one -- a crude pipe bomb rather than a
targeted drone. While obfuscation intends to spread
disinformation at the expense of data collectors, it also
undermines the information channels we rely on for social
cohesion. The same asymmetry that creates the need for subterfuge
also means we can't know how our disinformation will circulate
throughout our networks and which of our friends and associates
will experience collateral damage. Given the way some predictive
algorithms work -- drawing inferences from who we are connected to
and what their preferences are, correlating patterns in our data
with that of others to draw conclusions about what we want and
who we are -- we can't limit the effects of muddying the waters to
our own online tide pools. Our phony data may feed into
algorithmic models determining whether other people will receive
discounts, get offered loans, or end up on government watch

If obfuscation does nothing more than preserve the illusion of
freedom and agency in the midst of total surveillance, it may be
more fruitful to adopt a different approach. Obfuscation assumes
that the autonomy of the individual self is something precious
that needs to be protected from violation. But in making the
unmonitored self the ultimate prize, obfuscations colludes with
existing systems of power which rely on our isolation, and our
eagerness to assume responsibility for circumstances we can't
entirely control. Surveillance is more effective the more we are
guided by the threat it seems to represent to our personal

But a merely illusory integrity, rooted in paranoia, may not be
worth holding on to at all. So what if, instead of obfuscating,
we stayed alert to the potential solidarities that are
articulated by the very schemes designed to control us? What if,
instead of trying to fly under the enemy's radar, we let that
radar help us find allies with whom we can fly in formation? If
we can find a way to repurpose the resources of surveillance
toward ends it can't perceive, we could begin to consume the
system rather than be consumed by it.

	Rob Horning ( {AT} marginalutility) is an editor at The New Inquiry.

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