The Gmail Extension That Aims to Drown the NSA in Nonsense

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 9 2013 2:13 PM

The Gmail Extension That Aims to Drown the NSA in Nonsense

FT-131009-Scaremail2
ScareMail in action

Still from Vimeo

An Illinois university art teacher is combating the NSA’s massive surveillance infrastructure ... with nonsense.*

Artist Benjamin Grosser has created a Gmail browser extension called “ScareMail” that is designed to insert fake scare stories into the signature of every message that you send. Grosser says his aim is “to disrupt the NSA’s surveillance efforts by making NSA search results useless.” The tool, which Grosser says took him about three weeks to build, works by randomly generating phony stories that include keywords featured on a Department of Homeland Security list used for searching social media websites. The keywords include everything from “al-Qaeda” and “al-Shabaab” to “domestic nuclear detection,” “cyber attack,” “North Korea,” and “chemical burn.”

Recent leaks of documents detailing the NSA’s surveillance efforts have revealed how the agency uses so-called “selectors” to mine through huge troves of data that it collects from the Internet as part of a tool called “XKEYSCORE.” Grosser’s project essentially intends to throw a spanner in the NSA’s works as a form of protest, overwhelming the agency with nonsensical information in order to confuse the spies that have to sift through it. An example sentence generated by ScareMail, for instance, begins: "Captain Beatty failed on his Al-Shabaab, hacking relentlessly about the fact to phish this far, and strand her group on the wall-to-wall in calling suspicious packages ..."

Advertisement

But the point of the project is not just to annoy the NSA. Grosser, who is based out of Urbana, Ill., told me in an email Wednesday that he is attempting to provoke questions about the relationship between words and surveillance. As he explains on his website:

The ability to use whatever words we want is one of our most basic freedoms, yet the NSA’s growing surveillance of electronic speech threatens our first amendment rights. All ScareMail does is add words from the English language to emails written by users of the software. By doing so, ScareMail reveals one of the primary flaws of the NSA’s surveillance efforts: words do not equal intent.

In a video showing how the tool works, 43-year-old Grosser says that “all of your emails are subject to broad and unrelenting surveillance.” However, things are not quite that bad—yet. Gmail uses SSL encryption by default, making emails transmitted between Gmail users difficult to eavesdrop on as they are passing over Internet cables. The NSA can still force Google to turn over emails as part of its PRISM Internet surveillance program, but PRISM surveillance is likely targeted at specific non-American users or groups of users, not everyone using Gmail.

Still, Grosser’s tool is an interesting example of creative civil disobedience in the digital age. And the idea of it being widely adopted will no doubt freak out NSA analysts at least in principle. As Grosser notes, “If every email contains the word ‘plot,’ or ‘facility,’ for example, then searching for those words becomes a fruitless exercise. A search that returns everything is a search that returns nothing of use.”

Update, Oct. 9, 2013: This post was updated to include Grosser's occupation.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports on surveillance, security, and civil liberties.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Are the Attacks in Canada a Sign of ISIS on the Rise in the West?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Everything You Should Know About Today’s Eclipse

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 23 2014 1:51 PM Is This the ISIS Backlash We've Been Waiting For?
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 23 2014 11:51 AM It Seems No One Is Rich or Happy: I Looked
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 23 2014 1:34 PM Leave Me Be Beneath a Tree: Trunyan Cemetery in Bali
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Culturebox
Oct. 23 2014 1:46 PM The Real Secret of Serial Has Sarah Koenig made up her mind yet? 
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:45 AM The United States of Reddit  How social media is redrawing our borders. 
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.