Vernacular Resistance to Data Obfuscation and Analysis: A Political Theory of Obfuscation

Privacy and Security, Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing and Internet

Article Snapshot


Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum


First Monday, Vol. 16, No. 5, 2011


Presents a framework for a political theory of obfuscation relating to collection of personal data online.

Policy Relevance

Policymakers should recognize obfuscation as a nuanced and legitimate tactic for use in some cases by weaker parties when there is an imbalance of power and knowledge.

Main Points

  • The data produced by computer users is easily stored, aggregated and analyzed without users’ knowledge or consent. Traditional methods to remedy this problem (opt-outs, corporate best practices, legislation, or the development of privacy-enhancing technologies) have all proven ineffective to varying degrees.
  • Obfuscation is one method deployable by individual users in the short-term. Obfuscation is the production of “misleading, false, or ambiguous data to make data gathering less reliable and therefore less valuable.” Obfuscation has a long history but has particular significance in contemporary digital information systems.
  • Obfuscation takes place through various techniques: confusing a system for a set period of time; group obfuscation relying on anonymity in large numbers; selectively interfering with data to make it useless for some purposes and useful for others; and rendering data permanently ambiguous or corrupted.
  • In situations in which obfuscation is deployed by a weaker party in relation to a stronger one, the technique functions as disinformation that may or may not be harmful to the stronger party.
  • While several ethical objections to obfuscation are possible (that it is dishonest, promotes free riders within systems, and contributes to system waste, pollution, and damage), the ends for obfuscation is used, if ethically sound, can outweigh these criticisms. A political theory of obfuscation suggests that those providing misinformation should have a moral reason for doing so.

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