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Posts Tagged ‘obsfurcation

“I never said, ‘I want to be alone.’ I only said ‘I want to be let alone!’ There is all the difference.”*…

 

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Someone observing her could assemble in forensic detail her social and familial connections, her struggles and interests, and her beliefs and commitments. From Amazon purchases and Kindle highlights, from purchase records linked with her loyalty cards at the drugstore and the supermarket, from Gmail metadata and chat logs, from search history and checkout records from the public library, from Netflix-streamed movies, and from activity on Facebook and Twitter, dating sites, and other social networks, a very specific and personal narrative is clear.

If the apparatus of total surveillance that we have described here were deliberate, centralized, and explicit, a Big Brother machine toggling between cameras, it would demand revolt, and we could conceive of a life outside the totalitarian microscope. But if we are nearly as observed and documented as any person in history, our situation is a prison that, although it has no walls, bars, or wardens, is difficult to escape.

Which brings us back to the problem of “opting out.” For all the dramatic language about prisons and panopticons, the sorts of data collection we describe here are, in democratic countries, still theoretically voluntary. But the costs of refusal are high and getting higher: A life lived in social isolation means living far from centers of business and commerce, without access to many forms of credit, insurance, or other significant financial instruments, not to mention the minor inconveniences and disadvantages — long waits at road toll cash lines, higher prices at grocery stores, inferior seating on airline flights.

It isn’t possible for everyone to live on principle; as a practical matter, many of us must make compromises in asymmetrical relationships, without the control or consent for which we might wish. In those situations — everyday 21st-century life — there are still ways to carve out spaces of resistance, counterargument, and autonomy.

We are surrounded by examples of obfuscation that we do not yet think of under that name. Lawyers engage in overdisclosure, sending mountains of vaguely related client documents in hopes of burying a pertinent detail. Teenagers on social media — surveilled by their parents — will conceal a meaningful communication to a friend in a throwaway line or a song title surrounded by banal chatter. Literature and history provide many instances of “collective names,” where a population took a single identifier to make attributing any action or identity to a particular person impossible, from the fictional “I am Spartacus” to the real “Poor Conrad” and “Captain Swing” in prior centuries — and “Anonymous,” of course, in ours…

There is real utility in an obfuscation approach, whether that utility lies in bolstering an existing strong privacy system, in covering up some specific action, in making things marginally harder for an adversary, or even in the “mere gesture” of registering our discontent and refusal. After all, those who know about us have power over us. They can deny us employment, deprive us of credit, restrict our movements, refuse us shelter, membership, or education, manipulate our thinking, suppress our autonomy, and limit our access to the good life…

As Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum argue in their new book Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, those who know about us have power over us; obfuscation may be our best digital weapon: “The Fantasy of Opting Out.”

* Greta Garbo

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As we ponder privacy, we might recall that it was on this date in 1536 that William Tyndale was strangled then burned at the stake for heresy in Antwerp.  An English scholar and leading Protestant reformer, Tyndale effectively replaced Wycliffe’s Old English translation of the Bible with a vernacular version in what we now call Early Modern English (as also used, for instance, by Shakespeare). Tyndale’s translation was first English Bible to take advantage of the printing press, and first of the new English Bibles of the Reformation. Consequently, when it first went on sale in London, authorities gathered up all the copies they could find and burned them.  But after England went Protestant, it received official approval and ultimately became the basis of the King James Version.

Ironically, Tyndale incurred Henry VIII’s wrath after the King’s “conversion” to Protestantism, by writing a pamphlet decrying Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.  Tyndale moved to Europe, where he continued to advocate Protestant reform, ultimately running afoul of the Holy Roman Empire, which sentenced him to his death.

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Written by LW

October 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

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