If a stranger came up to you on the street and asked for your home address, would you give it to them? You’d probably ignore them and walk away, right? Imagine, for a moment, that’s not an option. A stranger will let you walk away, but the Internet does not allow nonanswers. Everything you do is tracked whether you like it or not. This is one of the hallmarks of surveillance capitalism. That’s where obfuscation comes in. Obfuscation is intentionally adding ambiguous, confusing, or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and data collection. Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum wrote the book on the subject, Obfuscation: A User’s Guide to Privacy and Protest, detailing its varying strengths and purposes. It is how we go on the offensive against surveillance capitalism. Below are a few of the many methods and tools to practice obfuscation.
TrackMeNot: blending genuine and artificial search queries
Developed by one of the authors of Obfuscation, TrackMeNot is a browser extension that automatically generates search queries. It’s used to mess up the profiling of users through their searches. If your organic searches are leaves, think of TrackMeNot as a forest where your searches hide in plain sight.
AdNauseum: clicking all the ads
This browser extension clicks on every ad on the pages you visit to obfuscate your browsing data. Doing so diminishes the value of real clicks which Google tracks to measure user’s interests. The method is so disruptive to Google’s business model that they banned it from the Chrome Webstore. Folks on Github (a platform for open-source software developers) found a way to install it anyway, it just takes a few more clicks.
Swapping loyalty cards to interfere with shopping pattern data
Not all methods of obfuscation are apps and or extensions. Loyalty-card programs are used to attract repeat customers while increasing profit margins from people who don’t use them. Although harmless in its initial stages a few events offered cause for concern. When a slip-and-fall accident at a California grocery store resulted in a lawsuit, attorneys for the chain threatened to disclose the victim's history of alcohol purchases to the court. Share cards with your family or friends to create unreliable data, foiling purchase pattern analyzers.
Tor relays: requests on behalf of others that conceal personal traffic
Tor is a system that facilitates the anonymous use of the Internet with encryption and sending ‘messages’ through different servers. A tor relay acts as a middleman between your IP address and a particular website. It is one of the more powerful mechanisms for concealing data.
FaceCloak: Hide your Facebook data from Facebook
When you create a Facebook profile and enter personal information like where you live, where you went to school, your work history, etc. FaceCloak gives you the option to display the information openly or keep it private. If you choose privacy, FaceCloak sends the data to an encrypted server, where it’s decrypted for authorized friends. Even Facebook can’t see this data and that’s a good thing because ‘the future is private.’
Deny location requests.
When an app requests your location data after installation, many of us don’t think twice before accepting. That’s why millions of people’s location data are collected and stored in data files for sale to anyone, including the U.S. military. Your phone may very well be among these data sets. But, have no shame, even the former POTUS had his location tracked. Protest for your privacy by taking these three steps to adjust your phone’s settings and stop sharing location data.
Turn off your location for certain apps.
Android: Settings > Biometrics and security > App permissions > Location.
Apple: Settings > Privacy > Location Services.
This setting toggles which apps you’d like to share your location with.
Some of these apps request your location but can work perfectly fine without it. A photo editor app does not need your second-by-second location to allow you to add a filter to a picture. Even your mobile browser will be fine without.
Disable your mobile ad ID.
Android: Settings > Google > Ads and turn on Opt out of Ads Personalization.
Apple: Settings > Privacy > Advertising. Turn on Limit Ad Tracking.
Your ad ID synchronizes with other data about you to develop a digital profile. Turning this off limits the ways companies can match you to your activities. Microtargeted ads, or personalized ads, are based on your identity and behavior. This might seem like no big deal, but personalized ads are what set the surveillance economy in motion.
Stop Google from storing your location.
For those with Google accounts, the company has already saved all your location data from your devices. Prevent Google from collecting more of it by turning off location sharing in your account’s activity controls. Better late than never!
Protection for protests IRL
The First Amendment protects your right to assemble and express your views by protesting. Protesting in physical spaces creates inherent risks to you and your privacy. Your data is still very important and is tracked at protests. This could mean repercussions later, even if you didn’t cause any damage. If, for whatever reason or issue, you find yourself in the position to exercise your right to protest these precautions can help keep you safe from identification:
- Use a strong password and remove fingerprint unlock and Face ID.
- Take photos/videos without unlocking your device.
- Back up your data. If your device gets damaged, lost, stolen, or confiscated you will still have your data.
- Wear nondescript clothing/cover identifying features. You’ll reduce the chances of identification through face and tattoo recognition technology.
- Use airplane mode and turn off location services (see above). If you’re unfamiliar with the area download area maps and determine meeting spots ahead of time.
Depending on your desired level of privacy, some of these options will be implemented easily and often while others might not be applicable. Whatever methods you choose to use, understand that until federal laws get passed to limit what companies can do with our data, we’re all at risk. Obfuscation works best when more people take part, so share these methods with your friends, family, and coworkers. Taking steps like these is good for regaining your power and demonstrating a form of protest through privacy.