Book Review: “Obfuscation” by Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum

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

Brunton and Nissenbaum have pulled together a thoughtful little book about an odd little topic in contemporary techno-privacy affairs. “Obfuscation is the deliberate addition of ambiguous, confusing, or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and information collection.” (p.1)

In a world of ubiquitous surveillance and data collection, it is nearly impossible to hide or to “opt out”. But it may be possible to cover your tracks, at lest for a short time or to pollute a data stream to reduce its value to the collector, and thereby throw sand in the gears or a thumb in the eye of powerful forces.

To be clear, “obfuscation” is not the same thing as strong countermeasures that may be available to the rich and powerful. It is a tactic suited to the weak and relatively powerless, who cannot prevail but seek to resist.

Brunton and Nissenbaum list many examples of “obfuscation”, digital and otherwise.

For example, one obfuscatory tactic discussed are schemes akin to Tor routing, which routes Internet traffic in complex ways that obscures which messages came from where.  One way to use Tor is to run a relay, which constantly passes along messages from all over, obfuscating your own messages in a fog of other traffic. When successful, Tor makes it possible for people to communicate on the Internet without being immediately pinpointed by monitoring systems. In itself, this does not defeat surveillance, and certainly not the threat of oppression. But it may slow down and make their efforts more difficult.

The most important and interesting parts of this book are their analyses of the ethics and the design of such systems. Brunton and Nissenbaum have studied these problems, and give us an academic treatise on the topic. This book is essential reading before you blithely try these ideas in real life.

On the ethical front, there are many questions that should be thought through. These techniques are, by definition, deceptive and dishonest. How and when can this be morally justified?  These are serious waters, it is important to think very carefully about what you are doing.

The answer lies in the ubiquitous situation of data and information asymmetry: powerful actors collect and assemble data about us, and we have no say in the matter. Furthermore, we do not and often cannot know what data has been collected and by whom, how it may be used, or what the implications may be. In this situation, do we not have a moral right to object and resist?

Brunton and Nissenbaum do a good job of laying out this smoky landscape. The ethics depend on the situation and the obfuscation, and they give a reasonable grounding for how you might want to think things through.

If it can be justified, can obfuscation be effective? Here the answer is, “it depends”. It depends on what you are trying to do, and what technique you use.

The critical point is that there is not a simple or single answer to “how to obfuscate”. Sometimes you mean to hide an individual, other times you mean to protect everyone in a crowd. Sometimes you mean to buy a bit of time to slip away safely. Other times you mean to brazenly protest.

Brunton and Nissenbaum have a nice chapter that will help you create effective and appropriate obfusatory technology. They walk through a variety of plausible goals, and also major parameters. These questions are guides to designers, to help create effective and appropriate obfusatory technology.

Chapter 5 has section headings on

“ I want to use obfuscation …
… to buy some time
…to provide cover
…for deniability
…to prefent individual exposure
…to interfere with profiling
…to express protest

“Is my obfuscationproject…
…individual, or collective?
…known, or unkown?
…selective, or general?
…short-term, or long-term?” (p.vii)

This is a handy little reference, well researched and detailed. Some sections are a bit formal and pedantic (I gather this derived from academic work), but its generally clear and readable.

I learned some things here, and I was pleased at the nuanced approach to these complex sociotechnical questions. I was especially pleased to find the ethics given so prominent a place, and such a balanced treatment.

A very good book.


 

  1. Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum, Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, Cambridge, Teh MIT Press, 2015.

 

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