In the wake of yesterday’s decision by the House of Representatives to allow internet service providers to sell browsing data, one programmer is determined to make that data as worthless as possible — and he’s willing to share his work.
If you’re anything like me, when the House of Representatives decided yesterday that ISPs can sell your browsing data to basically anyone, you were positively furious. The word bull and something closely resembling the word “ship” rolled around in my head like a marble in a cup. I go to the Internet partly to work, partly to disconnect from the real world. And I like my privacy for both of those things.
Harsh, I still want my privacy. I wanna browse pictures of cats in peace, then share a laugh over them without someone uninvited seeing any line of chat. I want to read NASA’s latest tidbits without the NSA (subtracting an A makes a huge difference) peering over my shoulder.
It’s my experience. It’s my little corner of the immaterial. I don’t want anyone to burst in on it. If I wanted to be under constant surveillance I’d fly to London. But I don’t, so I just Google-Map London and use the tiny yellow guy to see the sights.
That’s not how it works, though, and I know that. ISPs keep track of everything you do because they actually connect you to the disjointed bits and servers to create the seamless Internet we know and love. For the most part, they had to keep this data to themselves, so we had some modicum of privacy. That’s about to change for those of you living in the US, congrats, since that data is now up for grabs by anyone who can pay for it — and make no mistake, people will pay for it, profile you with it, and then try to sell you stuff according to that profile. Because capitalism.
I’m not a fan of that. Somehow it manages to have this 1984-meets-Brave New World vibe and I don’t want any of it, no siree. Paint me a barbarian but I’d rather not get a 10% discount on something I may actually want if it means a server somewhere is crunching my 3 AM alcohol-fueled-research of exotic cuisine on Wikipedia like so many 1’s and 0’s.
Luckily, there’s one brave soul out there who feels the same way I do but also has the skills to do something about it. His name is Dan Schultz, and he has the next-best-thing after Internet invisibility. Dan heard about the vote on Twitter somewhere around 1 AM, turned off Zelda and coded Internet Noise — a tool which will shotgun searches in your browser left and right, all in the name of foggifying your real searches in a deluge of random ‘noise’.
“I cannot function in civil society in 2017 without an internet connection, and I have to go through an ISP to do that,” he says.
Hiding in plain sight
Internet Noise acts like your run of the mill browser extension, but in truth, it’s just a website which will auto-open a bunch of random Google search tabs. The idea is that if you can’t keep an ISP from profiling you, you can at least give them a false image of yourself. It’s a pretty sad thing to need such a tool, and Schultz himself hopes that Noise will help people understand the risk their online privacy is under at this point.
It’s a pretty straightforward program. Schultz simply googled “top 4,000 nouns” and made a gibberish-list with all of them. With a click on “Make some Noise”, Internet Noise draws on the magic powering Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” button to search for those terms or permutations of them, opening five tabs of results. Ten seconds later, you get another five, then five more, and so on. It will keep going until you hit “STOP THE NOISE!”, by which point your browsing history should look like a potpourri of random links. Schultz says the best way to use it is to start the Noise when you call in for the night and stop it the next day.
Soon enough, you’ll start seeing some pretty random stuff popping up in your Facebook feed, for example. Stuff you won’t have the first clue as to what it is, and that that’s proof the Noise is working, muddying your Internet activity profile, causing algorithms to spew out all kinds of false positives.
Still, it’s not a do-all-end-all program. Anyone slightly more competent than your average advertising company could probably pick out your searches from the noise with a decent success rate since they’re obviously random clicks that have little follow-through. With 4,000 terms and 16,000,000 two-word combinations of them to rifle through, it’s also really unlikely to visit a page once and astronomically unlikely to visit it three or more times. It’s a really random fog-maker and its activity doesn’t look human or plausible enough to be truly good at masking your activity. A smart enough algorithm can probably pick Noise apart in a few seconds. But not all algorithms are smart.
It might even get you into some more hardcore surveillance if the program searches add up to something which appears sketchy. Schultz obviously hasn’t been able to pedigree all the terms to see if any could land you in a spot of trouble — think “pipes”, “industrial fertilizers”, and “do we really need the government” in one night. I’m exaggerating on that last one just to prove a point.
At the end of the day, though, Schiltz says the main point is to raise awareness. However, the project is open source and could evolve into a more complex program. People are already contributing, fixing minor bugs and some are suggesting possible improvements. But until more efficient privacy kits become available, your only real option is to learn as much as you can about what the tools you use can and can’t do and try to dodge the system as well as possible beyond what they offer.
But I do harbor hope. Internauts have never had much political traction, but they’ve never lacked for imagination, resourcefulness, and a brash commitment to stick it to the man when his ethics fall into question. The Noise might be feeble, but its offspring won’t.
If you missed it, here’s a link to Internet Noise: