Anonymity, privacy, and security in the online world are at least as important as in the real world. If you need proof, just Google “doxing.” Credit card numbers and “personal” photos are just a few of the things you can lose if you don’t take your privacy and security seriously online.

So how did scams based on stolen personal information become a Billion-dollar industry?[1] And why don’t the 65% of Americans online who use Google bother to read the terms, which reveal that they are literally tracking your movements?[2]

The answer: most people simply don’t understand how to stay safe on the digital tools they use, and why the difference between anonymity, privacy, and security even matters across the various digital services they use.

To make matters more confusing, these terms often get tossed around and used interchangeably to describe how we respond to widespread online threats like malware and identity theft.

The purpose of this post is to help distinguish between privacy, anonymity, and security so you can stay safe in your various online activities.

Defining Privacy, Anonymity, and Security

Maintaining a safe presence online isn’t an on/off switch; there’s no one button we can push. In fact, online “safety” is more like a spectrum and looks different depending on your goals and activities.

For instance, someone paying bills online will need a different level of safety than someone browsing Wikipedia, and someone planning to leak sensitive material taken from the CIA database will need a different level entirely.

That said, let’s first attempt to untangle the definitions of privacy, anonymity, and security so we can tell them apart:

Privacy

This primarily involves you controlling who (if anyone) sees what activities you engage in online. In other words, “they” can see who you are, but not what information or websites you access or seek out.

Anonymity

This is essentially when you opt to have your online actions seen, but keep your identity hidden. In short, “they” can see what you do, but not who you are.

Security

Internet security involves you’re being safeguarded while browsing sites or filling in a Web form. This essentially means you’re safe from online threats, regardless of privacy or anonymity.

Privacy, Anonymity, and Security Online

There are different levels of privacy, anonymity, and security that are appropriate to different activities. Most of us don’t need the international-hacker, Snowden-level security that others might.

However, understanding the amount of security appropriate to your activity is absolutely necessary.

Tech service privacy/security ratings

The internet allows for free exploration of ideas and messages, but once an individual’s privacy or anonymity is threatened, the element of freedom is threatened (to varying degrees).

On a grander scale, the importance of privacy and security can reach beyond our individual use and into our individual role in a free society. Understanding how to control your level of transparency online means you’re taking control of what information you read or content you view as a free individual in a free society.

Without this knowledge and a willingness to use it, we open ourselves up to losing control over content and freedom of ideas online and perhaps beyond.

Why it Matters: Privacy

CCTV camera installed in the wall.
Privacy: control over other’s knowledge of what you are doing.

Privacy has always been important an important concept, even before the internet entered into almost every aspect of our lives.

However, when using the internet the significance of privacy and our idea about what’s private and public can be unclear.

Just this past March, the Senate passed a bill allowing ISPs to track, gather, and sell whatever information a user sends through their wires. What’s perhaps worse is that they can now do this without asking permission.[3]

No wonder 91% of Americans believe that consumers have lost control of how personal information is collected and used by companies.[4]

While some of the data being shared by these companies seems harmless (depending on your level of paranoia), some of it does contain more sensitive stuff like a history of your locations, what prescriptions you take, what apps you use most, who you’re friends with on social media, and etc.

Even if you feel you have nothing to hide, there are still good reasons to feel privacy is an important issue. In fact, a better question to ask might be why anyone would want your information. Motive, after all, determines the nature of intent, and not everyone’s intentions are necessarily bad.

Most of the time this data will be sold to advertisers who use it to build datasets that help streamline their ads and services. While this does help enhance and personalize your online exploration, it also lumps you into a complex demographic and determines what information you access by creating their own online ecosystem of information — also known as a “bubble.” The effects, in other words, can be limiting in ways.

In addition to advertisers, government surveillance also gathers information of online users, reportedly for the sake of counter-terrorism. This issue alone has created many mixed feelings among internet users.[5]

When people know (or even think) they’re being watched, they tend to act like they’re being watched. While this might help keep domestic terrorism at bay, it also stifles intellectual freedom and starts to take on shades of information control.

Either way, what’s largely at stake with the issue of privacy is how the issue determines how our society functions. Privacy, for better or worse, allows groups to organize and share ideas freely. Sacrificing our control over what should be private and what should be public could very well place aspects of our freedom at risk.[6]

The issue of privacy centers on you having control over the information about you and your online activities and how it’s used. In fact, as we become more reliant on online transactions concerning money or medical information, the issue of privacy becomes more important as we have more to lose.

Why it Matters: Anonymity

Man wearing a mask.
Anonymity: obscuring your identity while participating in public or private activities.

Since the earliest days of the internet, online anonymity has been a hot-button issue mainly revolving around the boundaries between free speech and censorship. as obscuring our identity can bring out the best and worst in all of us.

On one side, some argue against anonymity’s false representations of the self and the lack of accountability for online actions that anonymity offers.

Others see regulating/banning anonymity as an obstruction of free speech and the ability to anonymously express yourself without incurring retribution to your day-to-day life (i.e. job, marriage, community standing, etc.)

In the last few years this seems to have intensified as anonymous hate speech and cyberbullying have become more common, easier to publish, and harder to legislate.

Anonymity, some argue, allows (or even encourages) individuals to act outside of social norms and cultural expectations in order to express more hurtful and dangerous ideas without social retribution.[7]

Some of the efforts to curb this behavior include Facebook introducing its “real name” policy to provide a safer space, and Twitter’s banning of Conservative editor and pundit, Milo Yiannopoulos, attempting to draw a line between free speech and harassment.[8]

While forcing people out of hiding might seem like a move in the right direction, it also prevents individuals on Social Media sites (and elsewhere) from hiding their identity to prevent online bullying and threats from people who know them personally.

Not only this, but it will also inhibit people’s willingness to voice and explore controversial messages without fear of losing their jobs or hurting their friends and family. In fact, banning anonymity can potentially prevent open discussions and inhibit free expression for the average individual.

On a greater scale, banning anonymity will hinder whistleblowers from calling out social and/or corporate injustices, or leaking important information that would otherwise remain unknown to the public.

If this seems like a pretty murky issue with no clear-cut solution, it is. Again, hiding our identity can bring out the best and worst in all of us, but how people use their anonymity online is ultimately up to the individual.

Why it Matters: Security

Security text on screen.
Security: safety regardless of your level of privacy or anonymity.

As the internet becomes a more integral part of our lives, security is the protection for everything from small purchases and browsing history to our social lives, reputations, and more. The amount and limits of your online privacy and anonymity depends heavily on the level of security you have.

The larger issue surrounding security is understanding the levels of privacy and anonymity required to keep the user’s actions safe at any given time in any given circumstance. In other words, you should know when to use more and when too much might be overkill.

For most of us, however, there are a few simple steps we can take to maintain an appropriate level of safety and security.

Start creating unique passwords for all your online accounts

Long gone are the days when we could use our birthdays, pet’s name, or an easy-to-remember number sequence (1,2,3,4,5…or something similar).

Instead, use long, complicated passwords composed of randomized letters, numbers, and symbols — and make sure you don’t use the same password twice.

Start using a Password Manager for all your unique passwords

Password Managers allow you to store and access your passwords. If you can remember all your passwords, they probably aren’t varied enough to be secure.

Some Password Managers to consider: Lastpass.com, pwsafe.org, Keepassx.org


Keep your software updated

Many times hackers prey on outdated software with weaknesses that were most likely fixed with an update.

Start using a Private Browser

Most of us probably won’t need this for everyday use, but it’s a useful thing to know how to use.

Most browsers have built-in privacy options: Chrome’s “Incognito Mode,” Internet Explorer’s “InPrivate browsing,” Firefox’s “Private Browser,” etc.

If you need more privacy, try Tor.

Consider using a Virtual Private Network (VPN)

While the internet is a very public place, VPNs help to encapsulate and encrypt most of the data you send by connecting to the internet.

In other words, VPNs offer another layer of privacy and security which can be especially useful when using public WiFi.

We’ve written an in-depth guide to VPNs for beginners that explains how they work and which features matter when choosing a provider.

Again, all this depends on how you specifically use the internet. In fact, none of the above options are perfect, but taking a few simple precautionary measures can definitely make the difference when a hacker or identity theft is deciding if you’re worth the effort.

Safety vs Utility

Ultimately, privacy, anonymity, and security are two-sided issues because while we do need to be aware of how open we are with exchanging data, we also benefit from the open exchange of data.

There is a reciprocal benefit to sharing some data and this does enrich our experience online. While it might not be obvious, services like Google, Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, etc. rely on consumer data to offer more relevant recommendations for things like information searches, movies you might like, directions to things near you, advertisements for things that actually benefit you, etc.

In the end, however, it’s important for consumers to understand what they’re giving away when they sign off on their personal data and identity, and the security consequences of doing so.

Becoming more educated on these issues is crucial as problems of privacy, anonymity, and security become more widespread. Taking control of our presence online will allow us to benefit from the advantages of sharing data, while avoiding the disadvantages.

Share with your friends

Experts

James Webb

James Webb

James Webb is a tech and gadgets expert with a focus on educational content development. He draws on his background in the startup world to make complicated technologies and topics easy to understand for normal folks.

Jameson Zimmer

Jameson Zimmer

Jameson Zimmer is a technology and telecom expert hailing from Charlottesville, Virginia. His work with data-driven companies like BroadbandNow has helped bring attention to consumer issues like municipal broadband.

Questions & Answers

1 ANSWERED QUESTIONS

How do I pick and good password and know if it's strong enough?

I would personally recommend that you use a password manager such as LastPass, since this will generate random strings for you. It’s possible to pick good passwords, but for most people a manager will do a better job of it.

Some rules of thumb:

  • Don’t use the same password (or a variation) for multiple accounts.
  • Use a combination of words and random numbers/letters/symbols
  • Make the password as long as the platform will allow you to — at least 12 characters long

Ask a Question

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.