Privacy is the ability to control when and how your personal information is released. Anonymity is the freedom to act without your actions connecting to your identity. Confidentiality means information shared with one party is still private to all others. The best way to protect all three is to try ExpressVPN with its 30-day money-back guarantee.
Anonymity vs privacy: They’re both vitally important online, but they’re not the same thing. If you’re going to live a secure life online, you need to know the difference between anonymity, privacy — and their third sibling, confidentiality.
This isn’t just dictionary-wielding pedantry. The enemies of both privacy and anonymity don’t want you to understand this difference. Privacy and anonymity are important in widely divergent circumstances and for different types of people. If you need one but accept the other, you may be vulnerable.
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In this guide, I’ll help you understand the difference between anonymity, privacy and confidentiality, and how it matters for your data security.
Is Anonymity a Good Thing?Anonymity isn’t good or bad — it just is. It protects trolls, but also dissidents and whistleblowers. It makes security incidents less dangerous for law-abiding citizens, but also makes hackers harder to trace.
Can You Be Anonymous Online?Yes, but it’s harder than you think. Websites and browsers won’t protect you on their own. You’ll have to take your own countermeasures, like using a VPN.
Is Anonymity a Right?Yes, at least in the United States. Several Supreme Court decisions have held that the First Amendment protects an individual’s right to anonymity as a crucial part of the right to free speech.
How Does Privacy Differ From Anonymity Online?
Here’s the crux of the difference at a glance:
Privacy is a condition in which information about you is not visible to people you don’t explicitly grant permission. The classic state of privacy is being behind closed doors in your home: People can identify you as the owner of the house, but not your actions inside it.
Anonymity means your actions are visible to the public eye, but your identity is not. The classic state of anonymity is being a single face on a crowded street.
To illustrate the point, let’s imagine a nonexistent superhero named Captain Smash.
Mild-mannered billionaire Johnny Puncherson was caught in a radioactive meltdown at the family nuclear plant, and emerged with superhuman strength and a mission to hunt down all evildoers. By day, Johnny hides in his family estate, Puncherson Manor. By night, Captain Smash patrols the streets and strikes fear in the hearts of every criminal in Cityburg.
This totally original setup portrays the difference between anonymity and privacy. While hiding in Puncherson Manor, Johnny enjoys the right to privacy. Nobody can see what he does in his home, whether he’s kicking back in the living room or training in the depths of the Smash-Cave.
When night falls, Johnny hits the streets in his Captain Smash costume. He catches his nemesis, Doctor Bankrob, in the midst of a crime. The supervillain, the police and all the bystanders know right away that they’re dealing with Captain Smash — it’s hard to mistake that suit — but nobody knows it’s Johnny Puncherson behind the mask.
Johnny has no privacy in public, but the Captain Smash costume grants him anonymity. His actions aren’t hidden, but there’s no way to connect them with a continuous identity. Anybody could be Captain Smash. It could even be a different person every night. For good or ill, people with anonymity can act in public without being accountable for what they do.
What Is Online Privacy?
Privacy on the internet, in some ways, is the same as privacy offline. You want to be able to use the web without exposing your personal information to people who shouldn’t have it. However, the technology underlying the digital world poses unique privacy challenges.
Thanks to the adventures of Captain Smash, you now understand the true meaning of privacy: Nobody can see what you say, do or possess without your consent. You’re in total control of your identity, words and all other such data.
Each of us defends our privacy in a thousand little ways every day. Texting instead of calling on the bus. Putting on headphones so your roommate can’t hear your video. Having a sensitive conversation in a coffee shop booth instead of at the counter. Every time you think something instead of saying it out loud, you’re maintaining privacy.
The desire for privacy is as old as human history. While it isn’t explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Bill of Rights, later legal decisions have affirmed that the Fourth Amendment guarantees a right to privacy: the idea that your privacy is sacred, and that law officers must have an extremely good reason to violate it.
The most important thing about privacy is that it’s sacred to everyone. It doesn’t matter whether or not you have anything to hide, or whether your private information “needs” to be hidden. As the sages tell us, pooping is legal, but we still close the door.
However, there’s one other important thing about privacy that we have to grasp before we can apply these principles to the internet age. Privacy is often transactional.
In your day-to-day life, you run across countless situations in which you have to voluntarily trade away a bit of privacy to gain some benefit. To buy something without cash, for example, you need to make your financial information temporarily available. To make a new friend, you need to give them your name, maybe your phone number. If you hide yourself away in perfect privacy, you can’t be a member of society.
It’s the same with internet traffic. Without an IP address — a digital fingerprint that identifies your individual device online — web servers can’t send you information. The only way to be totally private is to never connect to a network at all.
The question is not How can I avoid all threats to my digital privacy? It’s How can I give out only what information is necessary in a way that keeps me safe? After all, it’s not as though Captain Smash isn’t telling pizza delivery drivers where to find Puncherson Manor.
So how can you guarantee your private information is only released in ways that you control? It all comes down to the tools you use: encrypted messaging, a virtual private network, secure cloud storage and more. I’ll talk about that more in “How to Protect Your Privacy,” but first, we need to explore anonymity in a bit more detail.
What Is Online Anonymity?
As we’ve seen, anonymity is the power to divorce your actions from your identity. Everyone knows what you’re doing, but nobody knows you’re the one doing it.
Anonymity is important when you’re facing an action that only works when you broadcast it publicly. For most of human history, the only way to get people talking about your favorite subject or to organize around a cause was to leave your house and take your words to the streets.
Today, we can broadcast messages through forum posts, blog posts, YouTube videos and more. The internet has been a boon for freedom fighters around the world, who can now speak with less fear of punishment. It’s easy to maintain anonymity online, whether you’re using a VPN to act through a dummy IP address, masking your voice in a TikTok video or posting using an untraceable pseudonym (see “What Is Pseudonymity?” below).
Anonymity is controversial. Some argue that being anonymous in a public forum frees people from facing the consequences of their words and actions, leading them to behave in ways they never would IRL.
I agree that it’s important for the designers of communication platforms to build safety into their systems. But if we treat anonymity as a wholly bad thing simply because of trolls, we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Much like privacy, Americans have a constitutionally protected right to anonymity, guaranteed by the First Amendment.
What Is Pseudonymity?
Pseudonymity is a common type of anonymity where an individual’s actions are credited to an assumed name, rather than one that could legally identify them. Your pseudonym can be a handle you use on social media sites, an avatar that doesn’t show your face or even a complete character with a false biography.
Pseudonymity is popular for understandable reasons. At times, we all dream about being somebody else. The internet lets us live out those fantasies.
But pseudonymity also comes with risks. Unless you use a completely different handle every time (which does happen on sites like 4chan), your pseudonym will start accumulating a data trail just like a real identity.
From there, it only takes one slipup for someone to connect your pseudonym to personally identifiable information. People can do this by tracing your IP address, or in some cases, through basic detective work.
If you’re going to use the same pseudonym for any length of time, take steps to protect it. See “How to Stay Anonymous Online” for a few tips on enjoying a free online experience.
Which Is More Important: Anonymity vs Privacy?
It depends on what you’re doing. Of course, both are important — they’re in the Constitution, for crying out loud — but one or the other might take precedence.
Privacy is important when you’re doing something that doesn’t require an audience. Some examples might include:
- Browsing the internet for your own personal edification
- Using the web for financial transactions
- Saving and storing files for your own use only
- Engaging in private one-on-one or group chats
Anonymity is important when you want the world to see. Examples might include:
- Sharing your opinions on a forum or social media page
- Posting your own work on a blog or YouTube channel
- Sharing files for public use
- Chatting in a large group, like a subreddit or Discord server
When you’re doing something private on the internet, prioritize security. Your main concern should be sharing as little information as you need to complete your task. When anonymous, you’re looking for a guarantee that nothing you post will be traced back to you.
How to Protect Your Privacy Online
The simplest way to protect your privacy in 2022 is to never go online. However, you’re already online if you’re reading this, so let’s assume you want to actually use the internet.
I get that! The internet is a magical place. You can access all human knowledge, connect with friends or strangers across the world, shop in stores in every country and view every photograph ever taken of a cat.
The internet is also constantly hungry for data, with tech companies and other malicious parties racing to see how much personal information they can dig up and sell. Hackers lie in wait for a data breach they can take advantage of.
The average person online reveals much of their personal information willingly, while inadvertently revealing even more by not taking proper data security precautions. To protect your privacy, you need to limit what people can see about you. You can get there by following a few steps.
Don’t reveal things on social media. If you’re going to post anything that could be traced back to you, make your social profiles private so only your friends can see them. Never share passwords, usernames or answers to your security questions.
Block third-party cookies. Tech companies track you with cookies in order to collect data they can sell to advertisers. Modern browsers let you block these trackers; make sure to do so in the security controls.
Use an encrypted search engine. Popular search engines like Google keep logs of your search history to build a profile on you. Choose an alternative like DuckDuckGo, which encrypts all your searches so nobody can read them — not even the team running the search engine.
Use zero-knowledge apps with end-to-end encryption. “Zero-knowledge” encryption means that the managers of an information service can’t read the data on their own platform. Email services like Proton Mail, messengers like Signal and encrypted cloud storage like Sync.com can help secure your privacy. Password managers also help.
Practice basic security measures. All the commonsense stuff applies. Don’t open suspicious emails, don’t click on suspicious links and use antivirus software to run regular scans. Antivirus software alone won’t protect you from all threats, but can be useful for discovering malware and trackers.
Use a VPN. A virtual private network is one of the best ways to secure both your privacy and anonymity. After connecting to a VPN server, you’ll do all your web business in an encrypted tunnel; nobody outside can see what you do or find out your real IP address.
These steps are all simple (and free) ways you can avoid direct harm to your privacy status.
How to Stay Anonymous Online
The most important thing you can do to protect your online anonymity is to use a virtual private network (VPN). You can say or do whatever you want under an assumed identity, and as long as the VPN doesn’t keep tracking logs (the best ones don’t), nobody will be able to trace it back to you.
For more suggestions, check out our complete guide to anonymous browsing.
Our top best VPN is ExpressVPN, but NordVPN and CyberGhost are also strong players. If you don’t have the budget for a new app right now, Windscribe’s free service will do the trick.
Final Thoughts on Online Anonymity vs Privacy
The distinction between privacy and anonymity is far from a mere semantic debate. The two concepts go hand in hand, but they aren’t identical. If you make something public without making it anonymous, you might be in danger. The same goes if you trust in mere anonymity to protect your privacy.
How do you protect your privacy and anonymity online? What do you do with it? Let me know in the comments (pseudonymously, of course), and as always, thanks for reading!