TrackMeNot Helps Cover Your Online Trail

Let's say that, in the last week, you Googled "kittens for sale," "affordable toys for kittens," "why did my kitten bite me," and "how to tell if a cat bite is infected." We're guessing you just got a cat — and Google is guessing the same thing. Google tracks your activity to know a whole lot about you, in fact. If that makes you feel a little strange, you might want to check out TrackMeNot. It's the online equivalent of throwing a smoke bomb.

Hiding Your Needle in an Online Haystack

It's not exactly news that Google and other search engines are keeping a close eye on you. Anytime you search for anything online, it goes into company profiles of you. In the most benevolent scenario, that profile is used to target online ads just for you. In a worst-case scenario, that information could reveal your digital habits to governmental organizations. And we hate to break it to you, but searching in Incognito Mode isn't going to cut it.

There are ways to cover your tracks online — using a VPN springs to mind — but TrackMeNot requires a lot less work on your part. It's a browser extension for Firefox and Chrome, and it works like this. Every once in awhile (you decide how often), TrackMeNot sends out a random search. And then another one. And then another one. It will even click on the links that pop up. The effect is that AOL, Yahoo!, Google, and Bing have no way to know if you're actually looking up "Seinfeld Jurassic Park mashup" or not. (Also, why are you using Bing? Is everything okay?)

Evading Online Radar

Writing for Nautilus, TrackMeNot developer Helen Nissenbaum talked about how she and her team drew inspiration from a surprising source: World War II aviators. Those flyboys had a unique method to disguise their approach. They'd release chaff — strips of foil-backed paper that would fill any prying radar operators' screens with false signals. "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."

The thing is, this method doesn't just work to fool and frustrate machines. It's effective against human beings, as well. We've already told you about the Gish Gallop, where you overwhelm your ideological opponent with a flood of nonsense so that they can't possibly address everything you've said. The Russian government allegedly employed a very similar tactic in 2011 to drown out dissent on Twitter. Protesters attempting to organize in reaction to perceived electoral misdeeds found their hashtags hijacked by thousands of accounts that popped up overnight. Suddenly, plans made to bring people together fell apart as participants were unable to tell which were legitimate protests and which was nonsense meant to confuse them.

That's scary stuff, and the only way to combat it is to be aware of it when your digital sources of information have been flooded by chaff — and when to abandon them entirely. But in the meantime, you might as well keep yourself secret with obfuscation of your own.

Want to learn more about protecting your information online? Listen to our conversation with the deputy chief of research at the Army Cyber Institute on the Curiosity Podcast. Stream or download the episode using the player below, or find it everywhere podcasts are found, including iTunes, Stitcher, and Gretta.

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Written by Reuben Westmaas October 20, 2017

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