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.”
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