The Privacy Paradox and Obfuscation

The Privacy Paradox and Obfuscation
  • Jun 9, 2021

The Privacy Paradox and Obfuscation

protecting privacy in online interactions

privacy paradox:

the discrepancy between an individual's intention to protect their privacy and how they actually behave in the online marketplace.

The clear line between private and public information collection and sharing is becoming quite clouded. While people have become accustomed to sharing their pictures, videos, preferences, stories and other personal information online, a huge amount of online data is collected daily and used by corporations, retailers, criminals, governments, media and private organisations.

Recent university studies reveal that people continue to express serious concerns about privacy and claim it to be an important factor in their online decision-making process.


"Often the relationship between an individual’s intention to disclose personal information and their personal information disclosure behaviours are very different."


the action of making something obscure, unclear, or unintelligible.

Obfuscation, when properly deployed, can aid in the protection of privacy and in the defeat of data collection, observation and analysis.

Obfuscation... is the 'addition of ambiguous, confusing, or misleading information to interfere with surveillance and data collection projects' to ' buy time, gain cover, and hide in a crowd of signals'.

Finn Brunton & Helen Nissenbaum. Obfuscation: a user's guide for privacy and protest. 2015.

Networked Devices

The Privacy Paradox

Privacy is a contentious issue in the debate about consumer behaviour and individual rights. Companies want more customer data while customers say they are reluctant to provide more. And yet studies reveal people are willing to provide more personal data in certain contexts.

Privacy is an important factor in the online decision-making process; however, concern about privacy doesn't match actual online behaviour.

According to several privacy-related studies, the online audience can be divided into three main categories:

1. Privacy fundamentalists: very privacy-oriented and concerned

2. Privacy unconcerned: not at all privacy-oriented

3. Privacy pragmatists: in-between the other two categories


Consumers are more sensitive about the use of their medical, financial and family information than they are about their product interests, brand preferences or their social media behaviour and usage.

Disclosures of medical, financial and family information or loss of control of this type of information, may lead to security problems, identity fraud or at the very least, social embarrassment.

The Conceptual Model of Disclosure is a theory that states the consumer's behaviour is influenced by their perceived risk of disclosing their information and the trust they have with the company.

The consumer's actual behaviour is most highly influenced by trust. This is why people may disclose information even when they say they're concerned about their privacy.

Shopping Cart Dress


Personal data that is shared, bought, sold, managed, analysed and applied will have consequences for our lives.

Your personal information may affect whether you get a loan or a rental lease; if you are an insurance or credit risk; what advertising pop-ups appear on your social media pages or web searches; why companies or services suddenly make contact with you while you are job searching or dealing with mental or other health issues; monitoring of your travels and geographic location at any point in cetera.

Questions we may ask ourselves include -

  • "Am I on a list?"
  • "Why am I on a list?"
  • "How did I get on a list?"

In their academic abstract, Brunton and Nissenbaum explain that their book, Obfuscation: A User's Guide for Privacy and Protest is about obfuscation: the production of noise modelled on an existing signal in order to make a collection of data more ambiguous, confusing, harder to exploit, more difficult to act on, and therefore less valuable.

Obfuscation is a tool for defending and expanding digital privacy against data surveillance, and protesting the unjust collection or misuse of data. The authors provide strategies and an argument for evasion, noncompliance, refusal, even sabotage, particularly for average users not in a position to opt out or exert control over data about themselves.

A practical example of the use of 'obfuscation' can be found during World War Two with the British use of 'chaff'. This was a countermeasure in which aircraft spread a cloud of small, thin pieces of aluminium, metal-glass fibre or plastic, which appeared as a cluster of primary targets on enemy radar screens or swamped the screen with a confusion of multiple returns. This allowed a brief window of time for British war-planes to disrupt enemy radar detection and avoid anti-aircraft fire during air raids.

World War II Planes

Dealing with the Privacy Paradox

In dealing with the privacy paradox, companies may try to avoid frustration and the potential consequence of consumer abandonment during a purchase online by using the following strategies to win or improve the trust of consumers.

visible link to a privacy policy

According to studies, the display of a visible link to a 'privacy policy' has a major effect on purchasing behaviour despite only a quarter of the policies being read by the consumer. In most cases, users had more confidence in a site simply because it had a policy.

credit card icons

Even if it does not imply any promise of fraud prevention or privacy protection, consumers find credit card icons reassuring when displayed on a company's webpage and online purchase sites.

show a contact phone number

Consumers revealed a preference for phone information over mailing or email information. They seem to feel reassured when they see a phone number to contact the company if any problems occur during the transaction.

Privacy Policy On Website

development of policy simplifications and standardised indicators

Just having a link to a privacy policy makes a difference to a potential consumer, especially through the application of standardized, simple visual indicators. It is the presence of a policy that has a positive effect on users, not its content. Users are looking for "trustworthiness" not solely based on fact, but on appearance and first impressions.

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Defeating Digital Surveillance

Brunton and Nissenbaum maintain that obfuscation has a role to play, not as a replacement for governance, business conduct, or technological interventions, or as a one-size-fits-all solution but as a tool that fits into the larger network of privacy practices.

In particular, it's a tool particularly well suited to the category of people without access to other modes of recourse, whether at a particular moment or in general—people who, as it happens, may be unable to deploy optimally configured privacy-protection tools because they are on the weak side of a particular information-power relationship.

The focus is on mitigating and defeating present-day digital surveillance by adding concepts and techniques to an existing and expanding toolkit...

for evasion, noncompliance, outright refusal, deliberate sabotage, and... depending on the adversary, the goals, and the resources, we provide methods for disappearance, for time-wasting and analysis frustrating, for prankish disobedience, for collective protest, for acts of individual redress both great and small.

Brunton and Nissenbaum's aim is to enrich the reader's understanding of obfuscation by considering why obfuscation has a role to play in various forms of privacy work; the ethical, social, and political problems raised by using obfuscatory tactics; and ways of assessing whether obfuscation works, or can work, in particular scenarios.

They recognise that digital noise can be destructive or productive and on a variety of scales:

Platforms and channels can be swamped by code that mimics and distorts human communication - bots, like-farmers, decoys and hydras. Other tools, like the anonymous Tor browser, the Guardian's SecureDrop, or stylometric obfuscation (to disguise authorship), can be mission-critical for dissidents.

The authors advise that there is an ever growing demand for consumer-focused privacy-preserving apps, like CacheCloak, which hides mobile locations in a spaghetti map of plausible trails, or

FaceCloak, which gives a layer of control over personal data within Facebook.

Block Ads on iPhone

When Apple rolled out the latest version of its iOS operating system, it allowed iPhone and iPad owners to download apps that block digital advertisements on their phones. Since April 2021, advertisers have not been able to track iPhone users around the internet without their explicit consent.

Hostilities with Facebook are about to be renewed as Apple is expected to place higher barriers around Apple products when the iOS 15 platform hits the market in mid-2021. This will make it even more difficult for Facebook to collect data from its 2.9 billion monthly users. It may cause the social media group to lower charges for targeted advertisements.

Newspapers, magazine and online publishers and social media giants acknowledge ad-blocking as a threat, but claim they are equipped to handle it.

Nissenbaum says the Ad-blocking wars that have led to legal threats by online publishers "is a devilish move by ad networks to conflate the massive back-end of tracking, aggregation, mining and profiling with advertising itself." She concludes:

"Our effort, both with TrackMeNot and AdNauseam, has been targeted at the former [ad networks]. I don't love advertising but I can tolerate it. When supporters of the current structures of behavioural advertising say this will be the end of all the innovation and free stuff on the web, our response is: no. Although this might happen if advertising itself goes away, it does not require the back-end tracking for survival."


War and Privacy

Arm Wrestle

The arm wrestle between people desiring stronger privacy protections who resort to obfuscation as a tool to assist them, and the desire of advertisers to access important private data for their commercial use is certain to continue.

"By mapping out obfuscation tools, practices, and goals, Brunton and Nissenbaum provide a valuable framework for understanding how people seek to achieve privacy and control in a data-soaked world."

Danah Boyd. It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. 2014

Teenagers holding hands

When we more fully understand our behaviours as consumers within the 'Privacy Paradox' framework; for example, actually reading 'privacy polices’, and then comprehend the potential power we have to disrupt unwanted personal data collection through the application of 'Obfuscation’ techniques, many of us (especially the most vulnerable in society) will no longer be exploited or intimidated by data collectors, whether they are government or private entities.

Obfuscation practices by internet users, combined with Apple’s intention to make privacy and security key features of their products, may force the antagonists and protagonists that have emerged in the 'ad-blocking wars' to eventually learn to walk hand-in-hand.

It all comes down to trust.

Researched, compiled, composed, written & edited by Dr Steve Gration, June 2021

Boyd D. It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Yale University Press, 2014.

Brunton F. & Nissenbaum H. Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest. MIT Press, USA 2015.




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