Summary

  • Brunton and Nissenbaum offer a theory and tactics of obfuscation as a grassroots effort to defeat digital surveillance.

Keywords

  • “Obfuscation is the deliberate addition of ambiguous, confusing, or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and data collection” (1).
  • information asymmetry: “which occurs when 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” (2–3)

Notes

Introduction

  • “Obfuscation has a role to play, not as a replacement for governance, business conduct, or technological interventions, or as a one-size-fits-all solution (again, it’s a deliberately small, distributed revolution), but as a tool that fits into the larger network of privacy practices” (3); obfuscation as a political practice.

Part One. An Obfuscation Vocabulary

  • Think about the value of organizing this section as a vocabulary. This is a typological approach, similar to Manovich’s attempts at a grammar or poetics of new media. What are the values of this approach? Why do so many of the technologically oriented works of theory that I read deploy it?
  • Chaff as material obfuscation / again, what is the new of computation? (8).
  • “If an adversary can monitor upload traffic, form can be as telling as content, and as useful in sorting real signals from fake ones” (15).
  • Another question: does the vocabulary hold together? What are the limits of including something like “2.1 Orb-weaving spiders” alongside other technologies of obfuscation?
  • Quote-stuffing and the physicality of HFT: “If the use of ‘quote stuffing’ were to spread, it might threaten the very integrity of the stock market as a working system by overwhelming the physical infrastructure on which the stock exchanges rely with hundreds of thousands of useless quotes consuming bandwidth” (28).

Part Two. Understanding Obfuscation

  • “It is obvious that information collection takes place in asymmetrical power relationships: we rarely have a choice as to whether or not we are monitored, what is done with any information that is gathered, or what is done to us on the basis of conclusions drawn from that information” (49).
  • The expansion of interpretive ability: “There is a constantly advancing front of transition from meaningless to meaningful—from minor life events to things that can change our taxes, our insurance rates, our access to capital, our freedom to move, or whether we are placed on a list” (50).
  • Big data and predictive computing produce information asymmetry even on the part of the designers, who can’t know why the computer makes all of the decisions that it does—displacement of agency: “We can’t even be entirely sure that we know why a decision is made and enforced, because, in the ultimate unknowable unknown of data collection, those who make the decision don’t know why it is made and enforced” (51–52).
  • “Martyrdom is rarely a productive choice in a political calculus; as straightforward as the rational-actor binary of opting in or out may be, a choice between acceptance and dropping off the edge of the (networked) earth isn’t really a choice at all” (59).
  • On waste: Brunton and Nissenbaum argue that waste must be judged against standards of use, “To defend TrackMeNot against charges of wastefulness, we can point out that its network usage is minimal compared with usage generated by image, audio, and video files, rich information flow on social networks, and Internet-based communications services” (65); ultimately for them this becomes a question of privilege and power.
  • “Obfuscation, defined as the insertion of noise, invites a parallel to pollution—making something impure or unclean” (69). This is a moment where I follow Brunton and Nissenbaum’s argument, but think that the parallels never really rise above the level of metaphor.
  • “For those whom circumstance and necessity oblige to give up data about themselves—those who most need the shelter of the bridge, however ad hoc and unsatisfying it may be in comparison with a proper house—obfuscation provides a means of redress” (79)
  • “Obfuscation, in its humble, provisional, better-than-nothing, socially contingent way, is deeply entangled with the context of use” (95). Compare to Edgerton.

Archive and Impact

  • Finn Brunton (who also wrote Spam) probably shares the most in common with my approach out of any author I’ve read on this list thus far. His work takes digital technologies as explicit archives and pairs it with a rigorous engagement with the terms of critical media theory construed broadly, not just in terms of cinema like Manovich. Nissenbaum provides the computer science side of this text; her work is more technical and its focus on design shares some terrain with Kraus.
  • Obfuscation is a weird little book in that it’s scholarly but not quite scholarship. It was good to read it alongside Burrington’s Networks of New York because both take up the genre of field guide or definitional project; they both orient themselves toward an art and protest practice.