How to Obfuscate


What misinformation on Twitter and radar have in common.

During World War II, a radar operator tracks an airplane over Hamburg, guiding searchlights and anti-aircraft guns in relation to a phosphor dot whose position is updated with each sweep of the antenna. Abruptly, dots that seem to represent airplanes begin to multiply, quickly swamping the display. The actual plane is in there somewhere, impossible to locate owing to the presence of “false echoes.”1

The plane has released chaff—strips of black paper backed with aluminum foil and cut to half the target radar’s wavelength. Thrown out by the pound and then floating down through the air, they fill the radar screen with signals. The chaff has exactly met the conditions of data the radar is configured to look for, and has given it more “planes,” scattered all across the sky, than it can handle.

This may well be the purest, simplest example of the obfuscation approach. Because discovery of an actual airplane was inevitable (there wasn’t, at the time, a way to make a plane invisible to radar), chaff taxed the time and bandwidth constraints of the discovery system by creating too many potential targets. That the chaff worked only briefly as it fluttered to the ground and was not a permanent solution wasn’t relevant under the circumstances. It only had to work well enough and long enough for the plane to get past the range of the radar.

Many forms of obfuscation work best as time-buying “throw-away” moves. They can get you only a few minutes, but sometimes a few minutes is all the time you need.

The example of chaff also helps us to distinguish, at the most basic level, between approaches to obfuscation. Chaff relies on producing echoes—imitations of the real thing—that exploit the limited scope of the observer. (Fred Cohen terms this the “decoy strategy.”2) As we will see, some forms of obfuscation generate genuine but misleading signals—much as you would protect the contents of one vehicle by sending it out accompanied by several other identical vehicles, or defend a particular plane by filling the sky with other planes—whereas other forms shuffle genuine signals, mixing data in an effort to make the extraction of patterns more difficult. Because those who scatter chaff have exact knowledge of their adversary, chaff doesn’t have to do either of these things.

TrackMeNot: blending genuine and artificial search queries

TrackMeNot, developed in 2006 by Daniel Howe, Helen Nissenbaum, and Vincent Toubiana, exemplifies a software strategy for concealing activity with imitative signals.3 The purpose of TrackMeNot is to foil the profiling of users through their searches. It was designed in response to the U.S. Department of Justice’s request for Google’s search logs4 and in response to the surprising discovery by a reporter from The New York Times that some identities and profiles could be inferred even from anonymized search logs published by AOL Inc.5

The activities of individuals are masked by those of many ghosts.

Our search queries end up acting as lists of locations, names, interests, and problems. Whether or not our full IP addresses are included, our identities can be inferred from these lists, and patterns in our interests can be discerned. Responding to calls for accountability, search companies have offered ways to address people’s concerns about the collection and storage of search queries, though they continue to collect and analyze logs of such queries.6 Preventing any stream of queries from being inappropriately revealing of a particular person’s interests and activities remains a challenge.7…





Why Grief Is A Series of Contractions and Expansions

Why Grief Is A Series of Contractions and ExpansionsPhoto by Josh Adamski |

A Zen priest and bereavement educator explains the importance of sticking with our pain and other difficult emotions so we can come out on the other side.

By Joanne Cacciatore

Grief is a process of expansion and contraction that takes place over and over again.

Within this model, contraction is not wrong or bad; contraction need not be halted or controlled. Contraction is necessary for expansion—and thus, contraction is itself part of expansion.

A contraction of grief occurs when our attention and energy are pulled inward, our surroundings made smaller perhaps because, in this particular moment, we feel overwhelmed. Feeling overwhelmed, we contract and tighten emotionally; we conserve our energy and attention, focusing intently on grief—and on self. In a moment of contraction, it feels as if our very survival may be in question. We may feel unsteady, unsafe, unheld; we may feel tenuous, desperate, fearful, and vulnerable. In such moments, we may curl up and hold our breath. In such moments, we feel the call to self-protect. We sense, on some level, that contraction will save us.

Expansion may come with the deep in-and-out breath, in a period of small, even minuscule, growth post-contraction. Allowing contraction to just be, in time we see it naturally ebbs, and the tightness loosens, we grow larger, and we become more willing to venture out and explore, to take risks, to open and unfold. And we find ourselves in a moment of trust, safety, curiosity, willingness, connectedness, belonging—and maybe even hope. In previous moments, the contraction saved us; in this moment the expansion will save us.

In this model, expansion, too, is not wrong or bad (or good and right!); expansion, too, need not be halted or controlled. The expansion, too, is necessary for the next contraction—and thus, expansion is itself part of contraction.

Rolann’s wife Susan and only son, an infant, were killed in an automobile accident only four months before we met. Roland, a shy and understated engineer in his forties who married late in life, was understandably devastated. He rarely made eye contact in our first few meetings. Most often, his head hung down, and as he spoke, his words were mumbled, barely intelligible.

Then, around the six-month mark, Roland came in feeling lighter. A few days earlier, he’d reconnected with some old friends. They’d asked to see pictures of his baby, Jackson. Everyone could see how much he had looked like Roland. He described feeling both heart­broken and heart-warmed as others talked to him about his son. That night, Roland went home and put his wedding pictures back on the walls of the bedroom he had shared with Susan. He watched Jackson’s birth video.

This session was the first time he maintained eye contact with me in the many hours we’d spent together.

“I think I might make it,” Roland said, with a tinge of hope.

Six months later, near the one-year anniversary of Susan and Jackson’s death, Roland and I met in my office. Roland’s face, drawn and sullen, expressed what his words could not. “I don’t know how to live anymore,” he said, speaking the truth of that moment. “My whole life is gone. I’ve lost it all. Why should I be here?”

I asked him what it felt like to not want to be here…