SECOND NEXUS PERSPECTIVES
If you checked out my browsing history in the last week, you might raise an eyebrow at some of my searches. For example:
- Gherkin barium
- trolley knickers
- wombat beret
No, I wasn’t drunk-searching for old episodes of Monty Python or planning to do strange things with pickles; I was trying out online software, called Internet Noise, which acts like a ghost in your machine, running random searches on your computer. Dan Schultz, a graduate of MIT’s Center for Civic Media and a self-titled “civic technologist”—someone who uses technology to build community and civic engagement––created the software.
Internet Noise is a website-based software that auto-opens search tabs using Google’s “I feel lucky” search randomizer. It’s like having a precocious toddler playing fast and loose with your Internet browser. Every ten seconds it makes another search and opens up five more tabs. Within minutes, my browser history looked like I’d left a kindergarten class in charge of my computer. “Sturgeon management llama,” one search read, while another sought out “Philippines centimeter leotard.”
Internet Noise keeps running until you hit the “STOP THE NOISE!” button but ostensibly, you could run this overnight while you sleep to maximize the number of searches. Other than a cool way to trick someone into thinking your computer is haunted, the gist is that by generating “noise,” companies that follow your Internet activity via “cookies”—virtual tracking that enables them to use your data to sell you things (and manipulate your shopping habits) will have more trouble determining your actual tastes and desires. A cookie is how any third party entity gathers your information. “When you look at any website where you get an ad, there’s some code that tracks you like a spy movie. It sticks a little tracker on your car, only instead of a car, it’s your computer,” Schultz tells Second Nexus.
Internet Noise won’t stop a third party from putting a cookie on your computer (though other software will, more on that in a bit), but it generates confusion, like a bunch of drunk college students mooning a business conference; in the meantime that makes it more challenging for ISPs or anyone who’s bought your data to filter out your true digital footprint to accurately profile you.
While this software sounds like something a hacker might cook up, Schultz designed this relatively harmless obfuscator as an act of political protest. Specifically, he coded it in response to the March 28, 2017, resolution passed by the Republican-held House of Representatives to let Internet service providers (ISPs) track and sell your browsing data on the open market. His effort was “about protecting you from manipulation and keeping our democracy a level playing field for the individual,” he says. The vote was a reversal of consumer protections President Obama had put in place, which he found upsetting. “Congress went out of their way to revoke a change in order to maintain the status quo. Now there’s nothing stopping an ISP from monitoring what their users are doing, and then being able to use that info and sell that info.”
Schultz found himself up in the wee hours of the morning with a plan to “fight back.” He admits that this software “wasn’t thoughtfully done” but his goal was to build something quickly to make a statement. The software quickly went viral. “A lot of people wrote about it because it was a tool, and a lot of people were then exposed to the fact that this blip of legislation went by that wouldn’t have been otherwise,” he says.
Schultz is the first to admit Internet Noise is not a powerful piece of software, but it does confuse simple algorithms. “It takes some degree of sophistication for somebody looking at data to filter it out. I didn’t invent using noise or randomizing,” he says with a chuckle. He credits Edward Snowden, who blew the whistle on the NSA’s surveillance of citizens, as the originator of the “public dialogue about surveillance” that gave birth to a wide realm of “noise machines,” as they’re known. They’re not very sophisticated at jamming the signal of an ISP that’s trying to mine your data. “Noise will generally not distract the signal unless it has been very specifically crafted to jam the signal. Advertisers will still pick up on your human footprint.”
Can You Obscure Your Digital Footprint?
Of course, computers are so much faster and more efficient than human brains that ultimately Internet Noise is unlikely to thwart them. Some experts fear technology like this can lull consumers into a false sense of security they aren’t really getting.
“Any web page you visit on a regular basis causes a pattern in your web history, no matter how many fake searches and pages an app or system throws in there. A machine, especially one with AI programming, can find that pattern so fast it's essentially instant,” says Joshua Marpet, Chief Operations Officer of Red Lion, an information security and compliance company. If you use Gmail every day, or check Zillow for house prices in Denver, says Marpet, you’re laying down a pattern, no matter how much “noise” you use to mask it.
“A few years ago, humans, and simple systems looked for patterns. When that was the case, those apps and systems that faked searches, opened random web pages, and filled your web history with junk, worked! Now? AI, Expert Systems, Machine Learning, they're cheap! And boy, are they fast.”
To really obscure your digital footprint, you need to take your tech up to a whole other level. So why did Schultz go to the trouble of designing a software that is not tremendously effective?
“The value in this project is as a form of protest and a way to raise awareness. It’s fun enough to use and quick enough to get,” he says. More importantly, he hopes his own little act of protest will serve as a gateway to get consumers to check out more effective software that can protect privacy as much as possible. Several of these are listed at the bottom of the Internet Noise website, with approximate time it will take you to set up each one, ranging from fifteen seconds to ten minutes.
What You Can Do to Protect Yourself
The first piece of technology he’s eager to turn consumers onto is a software called “HTTPS Everywhere.” He explains that those four well-known little letters you’re used to seeing at the beginning of every website are like sending a digital postcard.
“Everything sent to you and everything you send through a site that’s using HTTP is in the public. Anyone holding that packet through your ISP, anyone on your network or looking at the traffic on your network can see the content, so it’s not secure.” However, when you add a simple “S” to the end, so it reads HTTPS, “it’s the digital equivalent of putting your postcard in an envelope.” In fact, he says it’s more secure than an envelope because it makes it impossible for any ISP to know what you’re looking at. While they will still know the location—that you’ve gone to Google, or the New York Times, they won’t be able to tell what you’re seeing. HTTPS Everywhere is a simple plug-in that will, whenever possible, redirect you to the secure version of the website. “That means the snoopers can’t actually snoop because all they know is you’re sending a lot of mail but not what you’re talking about.”
His other favorite plug-in is called Privacy Badger, which actually blocks those nefarious advertisers from tracking you as you move about online. “Privacy Badger will stop the cookie from latching onto your computer in the first place so now they can’t track you, can’t watch your patterns.”
If you have more than a few seconds to spare investing in your own privacy, the Internet Noise website offers you links to learn more. For instance, he offers information about Tor, a software that helps you keep your anonymity online, as well as a VPN, A Virtual Private Network, a technology that lets you create a secure network connection over a public network. Schultz and Marpet both recommend both of these as the gold standard of internet privacy protection. h
Though Schultz has the design chops to make a more sophisticated piece of technology, his motivation to help consumers protect their privacy is a civic issue for him. “The more we let powerful entities, be it politicians or corporations, segment us into clumps—for example as a thirty-year-old white male interested in tech—the less control we have as individuals.”
For now, I’ll relish my strange new persona as an indecisive person who makes small animals wear French hats with a fetish for trolleys.