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

Finn Brunton, Helen Nissenbaum


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.


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

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