Noise vs Signal

Resisting mass surveillance with targeted noise

Generate a string of catch-words and surveillance search terms (above) that might be picked up by a bulk-surveillance system and include them in your digital communications. Send to those who have agreed to receive them or


Noise vs Signal is a form of digital protest against bulk surveillance. Who is opposed to targeted surveillance? No-one sane. But the bulk untargeted surveillance of all digital communications is dangerous, unethical and unconstitutional.

Must we forego use of the internet to avoid surveillance? Perhaps. Must we route all digital traffic through the TOR network and encrypt all communication to experience the web? Possibly. Is the price of Google searches and Facebook posts the selling of our private information to advertisers? Almost definitely. Old-fashioned conversations and physical letters are probably the best, most secure communications we can have; but we should also be able to speak about the kind of internet we want. NvS is an attempt for one day each month (the 21st - in a nod to Edward Snowden) to break the filters. To make it a little harder for the Giant Surveillance Vacuum to suck up, store and process our internet traffic and phone calls.

Most of us trust the majority of government today, including its military, intelligence agencies and institutions. But we must write our laws to be independent of this trust. Anthrax and Sarin are catchwords today - as they should be, but what can stop future filter words including 'revolution', 'Wikileaks' or 'encryption'? Ultimately our most effective efforts will be to identify bulk surveillance as illegal. But until then, NvS is a small attempt at direct action.

It's easy to imagine that the outcome of NvS is a handful of idealistic folk getting put on the NSA watch-list - if they weren't already there. It's also likely that the filters would quickly program a workaround. But if not inneffectual, we must acknowledge the potential for NvS to be dangerous. That genuine terrorist activities may go undetected as a result of this protest. But we reckon the risk doesn't outweigh the dangers of a bulk surveillance state. Video cameras in our bedrooms may be justified in the name of the War on Terror - it is up to us to draw our individual lines on what we deem as acceptable surveillance.
We draw ours far from the bulk surveillance state. NvS is for those who feel similarly.

Niraj Lal
Luke John Jones

addendum below.


The above list of words is generated upon each page-refresh from a javascript array of key words using the Math.random() function. The short string has a random character length between 80 and 120 characters, the long string has a random word length between 50 and 500 words.

The array is populated by:

1. The above piece of writing:

2. Keywords and search terms from The Social Media Guide for US Department of Homeland Security Analysts, published under a USA Freedom of Information Request in 2011 and available online here:;

3. The following quotes:

No longer a government by free opinion, no longer a government by conviction and the vote of the majority, but a government by the opinion and the duress of small groups of dominant men.
- Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States of America, The New Freedom, 1913

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
- Amendment IV, Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution (1789), National Archives, March 4, 1789

A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.
- The 14th Dalai Lama

If any law is valid, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution (still the Supreme Law of the Land) should trump statutory law where there's conflict. The Fourth Amendment is clear on the issue of warrants. They require probable cause, must be supported by oath or affirmation, and must describe with particularity the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized. In every case the officer must provide to the magistrate enough facts and circumstances to demonstrate probable cause. He must swear to the court that the person about to be searched is worth searching. If he takes the oath dishonestly, he is guilty of perjury. And the government agent better have a very, very good idea what he expects to find. The secret FISA courts do not meet this standard, and neither do the sneak and peak searches authorized by the Patriot Act. Instead, they allow investigators to snoop on Americans without any traditional court warrant, only a secret and unaccountable administrative or judicial decree. Laws like FISA and the Patriot abuse our privacy, system of checks and balances and constitutional government. These abusive laws must be repealed for the sake of American liberty.
- Greg Anthony

Surveillance breeds conformity
- Glenn Greenwald

The truth shall set you free.
- John 8:32

But even if you thought they were adequate at the time, when you're collecting data in bulk - you've got it. The data lasts until you delete it; the rules only last until you decide to change them, and change them in secret.
- Julian Sanchez

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
- Benjamin Franklin

The most sacred thing is to be able to shut your own door
- G.K. Chesterton


Noise vs Signal by Niraj Lal
Scaremail by Benjamin Grosser

Bulk surveillance is employed by governments because it is easy. Computers are able to quickly and cheaply scan our electronic communications, automatically raising alerts for potential threats (however defined) to pass to human agents. Trained humans are expensive – so most work is automated; the low cost of computing is what allows bulk surveillance. These systems automatically gather all of our data to store for subsequent filtering and potential flagging.

This model can be broken with a small amount of quality noise. Noise here is defined as ‘false-positives’ – digital content flagged by an automatic filter but not representing a real threat – requiring a trained human to discern it so.

Alongside strong legislation and widespread encryption, the generation of noise is a third spear in our attack against bulk surveillance. It has benefits over both:

Noise is non-linear: small amounts of quality noise can flood the automated system, generating prohibitively expensive work for humans in the surveillance process. The relevant goal is not the generation of noise by all actors, but enough noise to be make automated dragnet surveillance inefficient.
Noise does not require action from the majority of the population. In contrast to effective encryption – which needs universal (default) use to protect Joe Bloggs. Small amounts of quality noise introduced into the system can help to protect the wider public from dragnet surveillance.
This noise can be generated at little cost by those already under surveillance. Just as encryption is visible by exception, so too is noise. But those of us already under more targeted surveillance have nothing to be concerned about. Any secure communication we undertake happens through encryption. The effect of unencrypted noise helps those not employing encryption.

Encryption is of course a powerful antidotes to bulk surveillance. Encryption works by hiding information – making it (nearly) impossible for interceptors to uncover the communication. Whilst we should of course advocate for default, legislated, protected use of encryption, in the meantime we should also try and pump as much noise in the digisphere.

It was from this motivation that was launched. And prior to this, the fantastic Scaremail app by Ben Grosser. Initially designed to thwart the NSA, noisevssignal and Scaremail aim to effectively disrupt surveillance that is conducted in the name of terrorism.

But we must also recognise that surveillance isn’t always (nor perhaps even primarily) targeted at terrorism. The agglomerated use of our communications metadata includes our phone calls, emails, skype conversations, bank transactions, public-transport usage, amongst others. Together they enable the surveillance and future control of all forms of human activity – not just those deemed (today) to be terrorism-related.
What noise might disrupt this surveillance?

Perhaps generation of noise from every form of digitally recorded activity. This would be hard. How much noise would be needed to render bulk surveillance ineffective? A lot. But the benefit of noise is that it needn’t be generated by all, nor in a 1:1 ratio. Merely enough to require expensive human input to discern the signal from the noise. and Scaremail are perhaps a place to start.

Generated short string (#NvS):

Generated long string (one-click email option )