The Ethics of Obfuscation
We are under constant digital surveillance in a world where asymmetrical power and information relationships favor big companies, government organizations, and data brokers, leaving the average population unaware of exactly how their data is being collected and used. Frustratingly, many of us “know that we don’t know” where our data is going, meaning that we are aware of its collection, but are powerless to do more (Brunton & Nissenbaum, 2016). Authors Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum propose adding the tactic of obfuscation to our privacy toolboxes in order to combat and protest against the power big tech companies wield by camouflaging our digital tracks. They define obfuscation as “the deliberate addition of ambiguous, confusing, or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and data collection” (2016). There are many different forms obfuscation can take, which range in levels of risk, visibility, and practicality. The Firefox extension AdNauseam, designed by Nissenbaum and Daniel Howe, is intended to serve as an accessible and empowering mode of obfuscation.
According to its creators, AdNauseam is “an open-source browser extension that leverages obfuscation to frustrate tracking by online advertisers” (Howe & Nissenbaum, 2017). It is designed with three key goals in mind: protection, expression, and transparency (2017). Simply put, the extension aims to protect users from malware as a traditional ad-blocker would, while also providing protection from data collection. Furthermore, it serves as a form of protest for users, as it automatically clicks on all served ads, costing advertising companies money and muddying individual digital traces. Finally, it provides transparency: users may access a vault in which they can see every single ad the extension has detected and clicked on at any time.
AdNauseam has caused a great deal of contention. Its original distribution occurred mainly through Google’s Chrome store, until the company banned the extension in January 2017 based on the flimsy rationale that “‘an extension should have a single purpose that is clear to users’” (2017). The true reasons behind Google’s ban may lie elsewhere: it is important to note that Google was able to make an extension that opposed its business model “disappear without warning” overnight (2017). Doesn’t this example of asymmetrical power between big tech companies and average users highlight exactly what the extension was rejecting in the first place? Today, the extension is available on Firefox. In order to better understand the app and engage with questions about its ethics, I used Firefox with AdNauseam for my internet activity for two weeks.
As you can see in the image above, my AdNauseam vault was quickly flooded with ads. I am currently buying supplies for a new puppy, meaning that I have been doing a lot more online shopping than usual during this period. (That also explains why almost all of the depicted ads are dog-related.) It is admittedly jarring to be confronted with them; I had no idea just how many ads I was encountering on a daily basis. Perhaps even more shocking is AdNauseam’s running total of how much I cost advertisers by allowing the software to click on these ads. In just under two weeks I was served 306 ads that cost advertisers an estimated $469.26! With these results in mind, I was prepared to engage with the ethics of the extension on a more informed basis.
AdNauseam is, by definition, a form of obfuscation. As Brunton and Nissenbaum discuss in depth, obfuscation brings immense ethical critiques along with it by adopting the approach of fighting fire with fire. Critiques of obfuscation range from labeling its tactics dishonest and wasteful to alleging that it generates free riding and pollution. Brunton and Nissenbaum address these criticisms by encouraging readers to first consider whether their goals are commendable and whether less costly alternatives exist before engaging in obfuscation tactics (Brunton & Nissenbaum, 2016). When it comes to specifics, each case must be evaluated individually. However, the authors argue that in general, if a user’s goals for obfuscation are admirable and it is their best option, then obfuscation “offers a means of striving for balance [that is] defensible when it functions to resist domination of the weaker by the stronger” (2016).
So, according to Brunton and Nissenbaum, we must first consider whether AdNauseam’s goals are worthy when analyzing its ethics. As mentioned above, the creators of the extension define their aims as protection, expression, and transparency for users. AdNauseam is intended to allow users to protest data collection and power imbalances while simultaneously providing protection. At its core, it is a weapon and voice for the weak in a system dominated by big tech. I argue that this is certainly a commendable goal.
Secondly, we must question whether AdNauseam is the best answer to our problem, or if there is a better (less costly) alternative. Many critics of the extension question why it is necessary for it to click on ads. Why not just install a regular ad blocker? This brings us to AdNauseam’s uniqueness: while regular ad blockers protect users from malware and third-party contact, none of them even attempt to obfuscate the user’s digital footprints. Thus, AdNauseam is one-of-a-kind; there are no truly comparable alternatives for users looking to camouflage their digital traces. In regard to the cost, it is important to consider who is shouldering that burden: is it the users, or the targets? In this case, AdNauseam makes very clear who is paying: advertisers. Remember that in two weeks I cost them almost $500. However, this hardly creates a dent in their overall revenue or value. I argue that by allowing users to essentially charge advertisers, AdNauseam provides a means of protest on an appropriate scale. Users are not threatening to destroy markets and businesses; rather, they are able to express their disapproval of big tech’s business models in a controlled way. In the long run, these costs may prompt advertisers to create new ways of reaching consumers that do not rely on surveillance capitalism.
In summary, AdNauseam is an ethical approach to obfuscation. By clearly defining goals of protection, expression, and transparency, as well as providing a unique and accessible opportunity for the average individual, the extension allows users to protest the asymmetrical power that underlies issues of privacy in this country. With little to no access to the highly secretive data collection and monetization practices of big tech companies, AdNauseam serves as a way for users to combat data capitalism. It gives agency to the voiceless, inspiring the possibility of a privacy revolution.
Brunton, F., & Nissenbaum, H. (2016). Obfuscation: A user’s guide for privacy and protest. MIT Press.
Howe, D.C., & Nissenbaum, H. (2017). Engineering privacy and protest: A case study of AdNauseam. CEUR Workshop Proceedings, 1873, 57–64.