A User's Guide for Privacy and Protest
How we can evade, protest, and sabotage today's pervasive digital surveillance by deploying more data, not less—and why we should.
With Obfuscation, Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum mean to start a revolution. They are calling us not to the barricades but to our computers, offering us ways to fight today's pervasive digital surveillance—the collection of our data by governments, corporations, advertisers, and hackers. To the toolkit of privacy protecting techniques and projects, they propose adding obfuscation: the deliberate use of ambiguous, confusing, or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and data collection projects. Brunton and Nissenbaum provide tools and a rationale for evasion, noncompliance, refusal, even sabotage—especially for average users, those of us not in a position to opt out or exert control over data about ourselves. Obfuscation will teach users to push back, software developers to keep their user data safe, and policy makers to gather data without misusing it.
Brunton and Nissenbaum present a guide to the forms and formats that obfuscation has taken and explain how to craft its implementation to suit the goal and the adversary. They describe a series of historical and contemporary examples, including radar chaff deployed by World War II pilots, Twitter bots that hobbled the social media strategy of popular protest movements, and software that can camouflage users' search queries and stymie online advertising. They go on to consider obfuscation in more general terms, discussing why obfuscation is necessary, whether it is justified, how it works, and how it can be integrated with other privacy practices and technologies.
By mapping out obfuscation tools, practices, and goals, Brunton and Nissenbaum provide a valuable framework for understanding how people seek to achieve privacy and control in a data-soaked world. This important book is essential for anyone trying to understand why people resist and challenge tech norms, including policymakers, engineers, and users of technology
danah boyd, author of It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens and founder of Data & Society
Obfuscation is an intelligently written handbook for subversives. I found the historical examples fascinating and the ethical discussion thought-provoking.
Lorrie Faith Cranor, Director, CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory, Carnegie Mellon University
This book presents a fascinating collection of examples of decoys, camouflage, and information hiding from the human and animal worlds, with a discussion of how such techniques can be used in applications from privacy online through search optimization to propaganda and deception. It leads to discussion of informational justice, and the extent to which camouflage can perhaps help people hide in plain sight online.
Ross Anderson, Professor of Security Engineering, Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge
At Obfuscation's core is a dystopian vision, offering solutions for 'users' who are assumed to have enough want-to and know-how to follow the authors down this road. It is a shame that obfuscation to this degree has become necessary. But at least we are now armed with the necessary knowledge, thanks to this book.
Times Higher Education
Right now we're being watched. It might not be literal watching: it might be that a computer somewhere, owned by a government or a corporation, is collecting or mining the crumbs of data we all left around the world today.... When it comes to maintaining their digital privacy, many people probably think about software like encrypted messaging apps and Tor browsers. But as Brunton and Nissenbaum detail in Obfuscation, there are many other ways to hide one's digital trail. Obfuscation, the first book-length look at the topic, contains a wealth of ideas for prankish disobedience, analysis-frustrating techniques, and other methods of collective protest.