Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, by Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum

Marianne Franklin on a guide to help people escape the attentions of public and private bodies capturing and capitalising on our online actions

December 3, 2015
Person's eye peeping through hole

There are several striking features to this book by scholar-activists Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum. The first is the design – and feel – of this slimline volume. Dressed in black velveteen with a smooth finish on the back, it sports a contemporary font that visually plays on the book’s main topic: obfuscation, or “the deliberate addition of ambiguous, confusing, or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and data collection”.

This, then, is its second feature: the authors’ intention to “start a revolution”, even if “not at first”. To that end, they set out to inform and then to enable the “user” to understand obfuscation, both via time-honoured techniques and more contemporary, tailor-made approaches to “mitigating and defeating present-day digital surveillance”. Their main targets are governmental snooping and corporate data retention and online tracking practices: a two-headed “adversary” for the book’s civic-minded obfuscators.

This is the third feature. Not only governments but also the corporations that own and control the lion’s share of internet-dependent goods and services are agents of domination to be resisted, according to this user guide. The authors’ focus on both these agents is a refreshing addition to debates that are typically polarised between national security and privacy prerogatives, as well as to policy positions that are caught between the excesses of “e‑government” programmes and runaway security establishments on the one hand and powerful business interests on the other. This “context of use” is one saturated by the “big data” that our being online – all the time – produces, and the ensuing opportunities for exploitation.

Tracking the traces of our “digital imaginations”, in the words of Bruno Latour, is now big business and big politics. The book drives this point home through its back-to-front structure, beginning with two chapters full of examples of obfuscation in practice, from tricking military radar to misleading data harvesters figuring out how best to sell us to ourselves: a total of 31 techniques and idioms to absorb and remember. It is not until chapter 3 that the authors broach broader ethical and philosophical questions about the theory and practice of obfuscation in legal and cultural terms, in seven brief sections that take us on a whirlwind tour of mainly Euro-American political and privacy theorists, deceased and alive.

The last chapter then turns to practicalities, considering whether such techniques are effective and, if so, how to make use of them, and for what purpose. This is where the book shifts from serving as a primer in obfuscation for everyone into providing a guide or manual for those with particular circumstances that mean they must consider their options and needs, such as campaigners, political dissidents and larger social movements. This is the next point of note, despite the book’s conceit of offering a toolkit for anyone looking to reclaim their online privacy. And herein lies the rub, for privacy is a “complex and even contradictory concept” that is situation-dependent and historically and culturally sensitive. If obfuscation is the new “Royal Road” to empowerment through reclaiming a certain notion of privacy in light of mass online surveillance by various public-private partnerships, then this book goes some way towards achieving its goals.

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.

Marianne Franklin is professor of global media and politics, Goldsmiths, University of London.

Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest
By Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum
MIT Press, 136pp, £13.95
ISBN 9780262029735 and 2331302 (e-book)
Published 9 October 2015

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