How to Hide in Plain Sight: A Visual Essay

Finn Brunton

  • 1. Our conversation began with the similarities between TrackMeNot query-concealment software and the military strategy known as “chaff.” If you have to fly and you can’t hide your planes from radar, you can produce thousands of “planes” made of foil and paper. This swamps the radar displays with false echoes.
  • 2. The ancile, a sacred shield of ancient Rome (fallen from the sky, no less!), had to be displayed and even taken into public for an annual festival. To throw off would-be thieves, 11 duplicates were produced.
  • 3. If you know what your adversary is looking for, give them far too much of it, as Cary Grant’s Roger O. Thornhill does in North By Northwest. As a fugitive, he dons the stolen uniform of a baggage-handling Red Cap porter. This gives him time to escape and change clothes, while the police search through the enormous crowd of other Red Caps on the Chicago train platform.
  • 4. A more practical expression of this same move: when obligated to provide documents in a legal case, overdisclose. Offer pallets and pallets of boxes of documents, under the pretext of being “useful.”
  • 5. A single person in a mask, while their identity may be protected, is instantly identifiable. But a crowd in identical masks: that’s a different matter. Think of the “Anonymous” mask, adopted from Guy Fawkes, by way of the Alan Moore graphic novel V for Vendetta. It produces collective identities and reasonable doubts.
  • 6. Camouflage is not about disappearance so much as breaking up outlines and coherent visual pictures. It’s about filling a shape with hints of many other possible shapes. As a parting thought: where do we draw the line between obfuscation—flooding an informational channel with confusing data and noise—and the visual strategy of “dazzle camo”: turning a ship into a less targetable blur of vectors?

In an age of constant surveillance, is it possible to find autonomy online?

In our book Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest, Helen Nissenbaum and I look at how Internet users protect their data from governments, corporations, advertisers, and hackers. One strategy in particular drew our attention: obfuscation, or the deliberate production of confusing information. Obfuscation conceals the salient target inside a swarm of copies, plausible alternatives, and puzzling echoes.

“Where does a wise man hide a leaf?” asked Father Brown, G. K. Chesterton’s fictional detective, in 1911. “In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest?” He grows a forest to hide it in: the act of obfuscation.

Obfuscation is especially relevant in the digital age, but it’s been used throughout history and across an array of technological arenas. This slideshow offers some of our favorite examples from past and present.