Privacy, security, and anonymity are 3 very related, but very distinct topics that get brought up a lot when discussing personal privacy and cybersecurity. So…
What is Privacy?
Wikipedia describes privacy as “the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves, or information about themselves, and thereby express themselves selectively.” I would largely agree that this definition fits the mold. However, I would suggest another definition as well. “Privacy allows everyone else in the world to see your life through a selective lens of your choosing.” It means to have the choice to not allow your neighbors to view your bank account information. It means only displaying certain information about your Facebook profile to the general public. And it means having curtains on your bedroom windows to conceal your sexual acts from onlookers.
Okay, What is Security?
Security is what keeps us safe. Privacy is the idea; security is the thing. In the online world, security is what safeguards our information from hackers, thieves, Joe sitting next to you at the coffee shop, and even Government bodies who want a little more control. It encompasses a wide range of “things” that we use to keep our data compliant with the Privacy Rules we, or the organizations and services we use, specify. Security would be things like encryption, or strong passwords. Privacy would be not letting a co-worker watch you type in these passwords.
What About Anonymity?
Privacy and security are very closely related, and anonymity is just the distant uncle who always shows up the party in socks and sandals. I say this because everyone makes fun of him at first, until it starts to rain and they all wish they had his nice warm wool socks on their feet to protect them.
Anonymity is the concept of not being identifiable as your true self online. It seems to get a really bad reputation because a lot of hackers and online criminals are referred to as being anonymous. But it is also a very positive thing.
For example, a teenager who is questioning their sexuality might want to conceal their online activities from their parents or school until they are ready to make that big coming out moment. A police officer needs anonymity doing undercover work. Countless individuals around the globe use anonymity in some form or another, every single day.
It is also important to understand that anonymity isn’t always just important for people as individuals but people as a collective. To have a truly open democratic system, anonymity plays a huge role. It grants us free speech, allows us to question governments without negative repercussions, and ultimately gives us a means by which we have choice.
Security without Privacy or Anonymity
Google has had almost no major data breaches in all their years of existence, yet they know almost everything about everyone to the point that the former CEO Eric Schmidt remarked ”We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.” Google offers world-class security with zero privacy or anonymity.
Privacy without Anonymity
MySudo is a great example of this. MySudo is not anonymous. They can see your metadata, and if you sign up for their masked-card service, they know exactly who you are. However, they help you protect your privacy by giving you phone numbers, email addresses, and cards to give to other companies and individuals so that you can compartmentalize your life and choose who knows what about you. Another example is privacy.com, who allows you to use masked debit cards with literally any information attached to them. Privacy has to know who you are by law to prevent fraud, so they’re not anonymous, but they can help you control who else has access to your real identity and information.
Anonymity without Security
Paying for a product in cash preserves your anonymity – unless the business requires it, you don’t have to give any kind of information at all. Yet, you have no security if the seller doesn’t deliver the item, and you have no protection from fraud or anything like that.
Security & Privacy without Anonymity
With Signal, because your phone number is required, you can be unmasked by a court order or even a web search depending on the phone number you use. However, Signal is renowned for having some of the best security in the world, and the content of your messages and the information you transfer will be protected and controlled even if your identity is not.
Privacy without Security or Anonymity
Forgive the crass example, but think of using the restroom when you go camping. You can find some bushes to hide behind and that will give you privacy, but have no security or anonymity. There is nothing to stop anyone from finding you, and if the police decide to ask for ID you have no protection from that request.
Security with Privacy & Anonymity
XMPP is a perfect example of this. XMPP allows you to sign up without any real information, over a VPN or Tor connection for total anonymity. Additionally, the conversations can be protected by OMEMO encryption, meaning the data itself is also secure and private. When used properly, this is as closed to perfect as you can get.
Privacy, Security, and Anonymity are related, but they do not depend on each other. A secure product does not guarantee privacy, a private product does not guarantee security, and anonymity does not guarantee either.
There is also nothing wrong with valuing one facet over another. Just be sure you understand how a product is meant to be used and what the risks are. It would be awful to use Google thinking that it will make your communucations private, and then your financial details get stolen by a rogue employee. Or to use a service like Signal to organize protests in a hostile country, only to be arrested once your phone number is unmasked with a warrant. Know the limitations of the services you choose and decide what features are important to you.
Thanks to The New Oil and cryptoseb for providing research for this article.
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