Vernacular resistance to data collection and analysis: A political theory of obfuscation


  • Finn Brunton New York University
  • Helen Nissenbaum New York University



obfuscation, privacy, popular resistance, surveillance, data mining, profiling


Computer-enabled data collection, aggregation, and mining dramatically change the nature of contemporary surveillance. Refusal is not a practical option, as data collection is an inherent condition of many essential societal transactions. We present one vernacular response to this regime of everyday surveillance, a tactic we call obfuscation. With a variety of possible motivations, actors engage in obfuscation by producing misleading, false, or ambiguous data with the intention of confusing an adversary or simply adding to the time or cost of separating bad data from good. Our paper develops a political theory of obfuscation, linking contemporary and historical cases to develop a descriptive account of obfuscation that is able to capture key commonalities in systems from radar chaff to BitTorrent.

Author Biographies

Finn Brunton, New York University

Finn Brunton is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.

Helen Nissenbaum, New York University

Helen Nissenbaum is Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication, and Computer Science. She is a Senior Faculty Fellow of the Information Law Institute.




How to Cite

Brunton, F., & Nissenbaum, H. (2011). Vernacular resistance to data collection and analysis: A political theory of obfuscation. First Monday, 16(5).