Pseudonymity, Anonymity, and Obfuscation

November 18th, 2015 | Category: Reviews

Ever get creeped-out when Facebook automatically recognizes you or one of your friends in a photo? Facial recognition has been around for ages, but it’s starting to get disturbingly adept. There are haircuts and makeup tactics that can trick such cameras and software into not recognizing your face as a face, like the “ugly shirt” in William Gibson‘s Spook Country (2008). Obfuscation is akin to masking your identity without wearing a mask.

ObfuscationI loathe the phrase “hiding in plain sight,” but there’s no better way to easily describe the practice. “It’s a somewhat blurry line, but obfuscation is different than concealment,” Finn Brunton told Joe Uchill at Passcode. “Obfuscation is the production of ambiguous, confusing, or deliberately misleading information in context where direct observation cannot be avoided.” It can be a lot more technically complex than just encoding a message for a certain audience (see Wayner, 2009), but Brunton, along with Helen Nissenbaum, have just released the highly readable Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest (MIT Press, 2015), which covers all sorts of contexts and uses for obfuscation, including Facebook’s “real name” policy and social steganography. Brunton continues,

In the case of Facebook, people who are fighting the name policy might not be doing so because they want to conceal an identity, but because for them it’s very important that they are able to have two different identities. But people who are doing exactly that might also be using obfuscation on Facebook, in the sense that for example, in the middle of bland updates on a real name account is a note that only friends who understand their lives will get the actual significance, so that the really salient activity can be buried in a bunch of other things that all seem unimportant.

danah boyd and Alice Marwick (2011) found that some teenagers use allusions to music, movies, and shows as a form of obfuscation on social media. boyd calls it “social steganography” (p. 22). Users hide an encoded message where no one is likely to look for it: right out in the open. Carmen, one of their interviewees, has problems with her mother commenting on her statuses on Facebook. She finds it an invasion of her privacy, and her mom’s eagerness to intervene squelches the online conversations she has with her friends. When Carmen broke up with her boyfriend, she wanted to express her feelings to her friends without alarming her mother. Instead of posting her feelings directly, she posted lyrics from “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Not knowing the allusion, her mom thought she was having a good day. Knowing that the song is from the Monty Python movie Life of Brian (1979) and that it is sung while the characters are being crucified, Carmen’s friends knew that all was not well and texted her to find out what was going on (boyd & Marwick, 2011).

The need for obfuscation as Brunton and Nissenbaum see it is largely based on all the data we give away everyday without knowing what end that data is being put toward. Our ignorance could be completely benign, but it could be held against us. We blindly trust entities that may not hold our best interests very dear. Our lack of knowledge and control is exactly what the authors wish to fight.

Improper NamesIn Improper Names: Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), Marco Deseriis follows the genealogy of another form of obfuscation: pseudonyms—from Ned Ludd to Luther Blissett, on through the massively “multiple-use,” improper name, Anonymous, among others. These collective pseudonyms are “improper” in the sense that their referents remain floating. “Contrary to a proper name,” Deseriis writes, “whose chief function is to fix a referent as part of the operation of a system of signs, an improper name is explicitly constructed to obfuscate both the identity and the number of its referents” (p. 3). Using these names not only hides users’ identities, their use evokes rich histories and aligns struggles with similar lineages. Deseriis pulls all of this together, illuminating an important yet oddly overlooked area of study.

In our age of increasing online anomie, these two books provide the tools for maintaining a modicum of control, wacky haircut and makeup notwithstanding.


boyd, danah & Marwick, Alice E. (2011, September 22). Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies. Paper presented at Oxford Internet Institute’s A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, Oxford, England.

Brunton, Finn & Nissenbaum, Helen. (2015). Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Deseriis, Marco. (2015). Improper Names: Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Uchill, Joe. (2015, November 16). How to Hide Your Digital Trail in Plain Sight. CSM: Passcode.

Wayner, Peter. (2009). Disappearing Cryptography: Information Hiding: Steganography and Watermarking. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann.

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