The term whistleblower has its origins in the 19th century and refers to a person who alerts others in case of dangerous situation in a public space. By blowing the whistle, he or she could at once transmit the warning to the public and to ask for help from the police. Since the 1960s this word has gained another meaning. First used by American journalists, it referred to people who revealed politically significant secrets by justifying making crucial information public. Whistleblower is how Edward Snowden is characterised in the media today. In 2013 he went in public with confidential documents proving among other revelations the international scale of the surveillance system. His act changed the world as we know it on various levels, but also shed light on mechanisms which ordinary people were not aware off. Snowden also demonstrated that the single person can mark his or her place in a fight against the system.
Today Snowden is exiled in Russia. In interviews he confesses that what he did was coherent with his very personal beliefs. If it were not so, he adds, he would probably still be working for the NSA keeping this confidential information to himself. Snowden’s act, showed that all our activities are observable and consequently easily analysed by we-don’t-even-know-who. If we just think about our online activities and whole Big data culture, we realise that information about us is systematically gathered and stored on servers. This information, easily manipulated, is used in surveillance and profile-making for the sake of publishing companies, social politics or institutions responsible for public order. However, we don’t have choice, we’re followed, tracked, observed and filmed on the Internet or public spaces. And that naturally raises objections.
Two American researchers from New York University, Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum observed inspirational social phenomena and analysed them in their book Obfuscation. A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest . The central point of this short publication is to analyse this eponymous strategy adopted by hackers in order to push back against the idea of collecting traces of online activity held by all users of new technologies. Even simple operation such as paying by credit card, making phone calls, sending emails or text messages and all other actions done online are registered. Thus, obfuscation was defined by authors as a form of resistance within a rather local framework/context, which usually submits falsified or misleading data in order to affect data gathering or to nullify existing databases. That kind of misinforming is a conscious protest against the mechanisms of control. It is a tactic whose goal is to question their feasibility and efficiency. Those are rather manifestations of an individual’s personal and autonomous choice of fighting against the system. Brunton and Nissenbaum raise this dynamic, evoking the concept of power asymmetry which can be seen in unequal access to knowledge and technology that leads to manipulation.
We can already observe how certain processes are hidden from users on just a devices we use every day. Our PC – personal computer – whose name is derived from its noble ancestor ENIAC, a computing machine constructed between 1941-46. It was called a personal computer, as it only took up a few rooms and required everyday care to keep it working. The staff working IN the computer ended up getting attached to the machine. Today our computers are lighter, flatter, portable, resistant – and increasingly ‘independent’. In such ways have users access to technology has became naturally limited. What is more, all those servers holding data concerning us, or servers where we stock our files (via Google Drive or Cloud) are usually visually represented in a very tendentious way. As in the image accompanying this article, we usually see long rows of black or silver boxes. There are some spotlights, functioning almost like an early science fiction movie – where the main character using control panels with dozens of flashing buttons – we don’t really know what we’re actually looking at. But it is somewhere there, mysterious and powerful. Are we not supposed to know how it works and where exactly? Do we even ask ourselves this question?
Obfuscation strategy, by simply installing software in our computer also rejects the fact of being simply a number in a system. It raises the question about its ethical value. Brunton and Nissenbaum agree that obfuscation strategy cannot damage or harm large system of data gathering, only interfere in a small set of data or simply create an information noise. Certain useful information about people (for example preventing terrorist attacks or disease outbreak) won’t be paralyzed by this grassroots activity. This strategy, not used on a large scale, rather stands out in defense of an individual and minority right for freedom.
Burton and Nissenbaum adopt a thought provoking approach describing selected methods of obfuscation and taking the position of its defenders. That policy is already clearly noticeable in the title of their book, trying to encourage the user to adopt the obfuscation technique. At once the authors seek for a rational explanation and motivation for those practices and try to define their place in a technologized world.
They called obfuscation a weapon of weak. It sheds light on the place of an individual in a fluid present-day, being in a constant process of change due to rapid technological progress. This is an example of the influence of technology on the human body and its action, both followed online or in public spaces undergoing through categorization, profiling and predictive process regarding our varied preferences. Obfuscation discloses the illusionary comfort and unequal information access enabled by new technologies and modes of communication. Obfuscation projects, very often picked up in a crude and clever way, protects an individual from the control of a third party, but does not aim to dismantle the system. The artistic activities analysed in this issue, emphasize the social debate and construction of social awareness.
Jay David Bolter, Richard Grusin, Remediation. Understanding New Media¸ MIT Press, Cambridge 2000.
James Bridle (2015), Big Data. No, Thanks, [online] avaible at Booktwo.org, http://booktwo.org/notebook/big-data-no-thanks/, [accessed 4 Jul. 2016].
James Bridle (2016), Methaphore of the Cloudm presented during a seminar Offline/Online w kwietniu 2016, HD Kepler, 3137 Enterprise Project, Athens 2016.
James Bridle, The New Aesthetic and its Politics, in: Omar Kholeif (red.), You Are Here. Art After the Internet, Conerhouse, SPACE, London 2014 and James Bridle (2012), The New Aesthetic and its Politics, Booktwo.org 2012, http://booktwo.org/notebook/new-aesthetic-politics/, [accessed 13 Jul. 2016].
Finn Brunton i Helen Nissenbaum (2015), Obfuscation. A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, MIT Press, Cambridge.
Square Idea. Meeting with Snowden, document shown on Arte FR, http://www.arte.tv/fr/videos/072258-000-A/square-idee-meeting-snowden