Source: link MIT technology Review
We’ve all been there by now: surfing the web and bumping into ads with an uncanny flavor. How did they know I was thinking about joining a gym? Or changing careers? Or that I need a loan? You might wonder if Google can read your mind. Google even boasts that it knows you better than you know yourself.
Google can’t read your mind, of course. But it can read your search history. It tracks a lot of your web browsing, too. Google has an enormous amount of data about its users, and it uses that data to make an unimaginable amount of money from advertising: over $120 billion a year. The company runs a vast profiling machine, fitting people into categories that say who they are, what they’re worth, and how they’re expected to act. Google isn’t just organizing the world’s information; it’s sorting the world’s populations.
Many of the digital devices and platforms people use every day are built to make users transparent to the companies who want to predict, influence, and evaluate user behavior. This surveillance advertising has major social costs. Just for starters: it erodes privacy, perpetuates forms of discrimination, and siphons money away from the public-interest journalism that democracies need to survive. Lawmakers have not acted decisively to mitigate these costs.
Some activists, frustrated by the inability of regulators to effectively constrain Google’s actions, have taken matters into their own hands. Back in 2014, Daniel Howe, Mushon Zer-Aviv, and Helen Nissenbaum released a browser extension called AdNauseam that automatically clicks on web ads to interfere with behavioral tracking and profiling. Nissenbaum heads a research group at Cornell Tech, which I’m a part of.
AdNauseam is a tool of obfuscation. Obfuscation tactics are a sort of guerrilla warfare approach to the lack of privacy protections. Since it’s not possible to hide from Google’s surveillance, these tactics introduce inaccurate or excessive information to confuse and ultimately sabotage it.
This isn’t a new idea. As Nissenbaum wrote with Finn Brunton in a 2019 essay, “We are surrounded by examples of obfuscation that we do not yet think of under that name.” It can be something as simple as adding extra items to a shopping cart at the pharmacy to distract from something that might bring unwanted judgement. The Tor browser, which aggregates users’ web traffic so that no individual stands out, is perhaps one of the most successful examples of systematic obfuscation.
AdNauseam is like conventional ad-blocking software, but with an extra layer. Instead of just removing ads when the user browses a website, it also automatically clicks on them. By making it appear as if the user is interested in everything, AdNauseam makes it hard for observers to construct a profile of that person. It’s like jamming radar by flooding it with false signals. And it’s adjustable. Users can choose to trust privacy-respecting advertisers while jamming others. They can also choose whether to automatically click on all the ads on a given website or only some percentage of them.