Science·Q&A

Online surveillance: What Belgian cat tweets can teach us

While the city of Brussels remains on lockdown, Belgians have been tweeting pictures of cats. It's a good lesson on how to foil online surveillance, CBC's Dan Misener explains.

Belgians turn to 'obfuscation' technique to fight terror, via cat pictures

Some photos used by Belgians to comment on the lockdown in Brussels appear to reference Belgian surrealism, an art movement with which the country has a rich history. (womfleming/Twitter)

While the city of Brussels remains on lockdown, Belgians have responded by tweeting pictures of cats.

Some have framed it as an act of defiance against terror, while others saw it as a nod to the country's connection to surrealism.

But CBC technology columnist Dan Misener says those Belgian felines also have something to teach us about online privacy and surveillance.

How did the Belgian cat meme start?

As of Sunday night, Brussels was on lockdown, with subways, schools, and stores closed. Authorities there are conducting raids, searching for suspected terrorists. 

And as part of this, Belgian police made a request to the public — don't share police movements on social media. The goal was silence, to avoid social media posts that might interfere with the police or tip off the suspects they were searching for.

But in response, Belgians started tweeting pictures of cats with the hashtag #BrusselsLockdown. Some saw this as a way to lighten the mood and show solidarity in a pretty scary and surreal situation.

The meme was also an example of obfuscation, which is an increasingly useful technique online — not just during manhunts, but in all kinds of situations having to do with privacy and surveillance.

Why are cat pictures better than saying nothing at all?

Finn Brunton is a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University. He recently co-authored a book about the obfuscation tactic, called Obfuscation: A User's Guide for Privacy and Protest.

He argues that if everyone on Twitter had remained silent about police movement, anyone who broke that silence would be that much louder.

"The beauty of the public response was that it recognized this as the challenge," he said. "And instead of everyone being quiet, people flooded the hashtag with this sort of charming and strange and basically innocuous material, such that even if someone tried to violate the ban, they wouldn't get anything out of it."

Essentially, by filling the #BrusselsLockdown hashtag with noise (in the form of cat pictures), people created a "needle in a haystack" situation for anyone trying to track police action via social media.

Have we seen this tactic used before on Twitter?

Brunton said he's seen this kind of obfuscation strategy used to flood Twitter hashtags in Mexico and Russia in the past — with one significant difference.

"All of the previous examples that I have are examples of governments using [it] against their own people, trying to either stall protests or interfere with organizing activity around elections," Brunton said. "And it's fascinating to see this technique being used [by citizens] in support of their government in taking action."

How else can this strategy be used?

Obfuscation is a strategy for dealing with a situation in which you're monitored all the time, and where you can't avoid observation.

So you can imagine this is particularly useful in a digital context, when it comes to maintaining our online privacy. Increasingly, our online activities are tracked across devices — by online services and advertisers, for example.

But if an online service is tracking you all the time, you can throw it off by entering in a bunch of junk information —essentially making yourself difficult to track by hiding in plain sight.

If I want to try obfuscation myself, where do I start?

There are two pieces of software that are a good way to start thinking about obfuscation in everyday life. 

The first one is called AdNauseam. It's an app designed to throw advertisers off your trail, and keep them from building up an accurate profile of you.

Basically, as you browse around the web, AdNauseam clicks on every single ad it sees. So from the perspective of an ad network, it looks like you like everything.

Another useful piece of software is TrackMeNot. It's a browser extension designed to keep search engines from building up a profile about you.

It generates a series of randomized search queries, so your real searches are hidden — once again, basically needles in an online haystack created by the extension.

Or, of course, you could just start posting nothing but cat pictures, all the time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and CBCNews.ca. Find him on Twitter @misener.

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