Obfuscation won’t likely stop marketers from figuring out your browsing habits.
Last week, Republicans sold out your internet privacy to the highest bidder, allowing Internet Service Providers to collect and sell your browsing habits and other private information to marketers and advertisers without your consent. Since then, internet users have been wondering how to better protect their newly-lost privacy, perhaps using a VPN, or maybe confusing the trackers adding random noise to one's browsing habits.
This technique is known as "obfuscation," and it's backed by really smart people such as Helen Nissenbaum and Finn Brunton, who wrote a book about it. The idea is simple: you make it harder for anyone to profile you by visiting random websites, or clicking on random ads. There are now several tools that can do that for you automatically.
"To bring the powers-that-be to the negotiating table, we—individual users—need to have some leverage."
"I'm a firm believer in obfuscation," Nissenbaum told Motherboard in an email. "I'm a firm supporter of these efforts because to bring the powers-that-be to the negotiating table, we—individual users—need to have some leverage."
As we found, VPNs are an imperfect, burdensome solution. But trying to hide your habits in a fog of browser misdirection, while it might sound like a good, easy way to confuse marketers, isn't a panacea either.
Read more: The Motherboard Guide to VPNs
The problem, according to some experts, is that adding random noise to your internet history doesn't really hide your real habits and patterns. Trackers that know what they're doing should be able to filter out the noise to see what you're really interested in, what sites you really intended to visit, or ads you intended to click on, as opposed to those that an app or script made you visit and click.
"I don't think these apps are useful, at all," said Sarah Jamie Lewis, an independent privacy and anonymity researcher who used to work at the British spy agency GCHQ. "If this noise is not calibrated correctly to produce a certain profile then it becomes trivial to remove this noise and find the pattern."
"If anything these applications profile you as someone who is concerned about privacy, but has been given some bad advice."
Steven Bellovin, a computer science professor at Columbia University, warned that it's hard to know whether these tools work until someone does an exhaustive, data-driven, measurement of their effects. Yet he suspects they can't really achieve their intended goal, as he told Motherboard in an email.
"Random traffic generators raise the noise floor somewhat, but unless there's a lot of random traffic it won't have a big effect; there's always a lot of noise that has to be filtered out," Bellovin said.
Filtering noise out can be trivial if all trackers have to do is ignore websites visited while you sleep, which is how the tool Internet Noise works, or remove IP addresses or websites only visited once. Trackers could even reverse engineer these privacy tools and figure out exactly how they try to hide patterns, programming their own tools to ignore the noise.
"If anything these applications profile you as someone who is concerned about privacy," Lewis said, "but has been given some bad advice and as such is not protected at all."
In other words, don't download these tools thinking they can be a silver bullet. They aren't, and probably never will. No one-click solution, neither a VPN nor an obfuscation tool, will save your privacy. The only way to save it would be to restore the privacy protection rules that what the Republicans undid. Everything else is just a temporary, imperfect patch.
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