A Practical Guide to the Theory and Practice of Online Privacy

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  • June 14, 2019
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Just what is privacy anyway? What is anonymity? Are they the same, or is one more desirable than the other? Are privacy and security the same thing? The answers to these questions are probably as varied as the people whom you ask. Let’s start with privacy.

What is privacy?

According to The International Association of Privacy Professionals: privacy is the right to be left alone, or freedom from interference or intrusion. Information privacy is the right to have some control over how your personal information is collected and used. The world of technology has made it increasingly difficult to maintain this freedom from intrusion or interference, and maintaining full control over our personal information is essentially a thing of the past.

Privacy is about no one seeing what you do, but possibly knowing who you are. It’s about content, confidentiality, and keeping secrets – whether created or consumed. Sending an encrypted email to a friend is an example of privacy. Only you and your friend can read it, which makes it private from the rest of the world. The second example of privacy is creating a Dropbox account and encrypting the files with only you having the key.

This data is not anonymous because your identity is known to the cloud service provider, but if only you have the decryption key then the data is private. A final, non-technical analogy would be that you are private in your own home as no one knows what you do there, but you are not anonymous because everyone knows you live there.

What is anonymity?

Anonymity is no one knowing who you are but potentially seeing what you do. It is keeping your actions and activities separate from your true identity. Anonymity means that out of a set of all possible people, the odds are equal that it could be anyone.

This is ultimately non-attribution to your actions, being nameless and faceless – essentially being a ghost or phantom. You can achieve this by using an anonymized web browsing service like the Tor network and post a message with an anonymous user name or posting ID on a public forum. Your message is not private, as it can be seen by all, but your identity remains anonymous.

This is especially useful in countries where posting about certain issues may be illegal. Sometimes anonymity and pseudo-anonymity are mistaken as the same, but be very careful because they are not. Pseudo-anonymity is akin to having an alias for an online forum like Twitter, where people may not know your real identity but can attribute actions to your alias. A good example of pseudo-anonymity is Satoshi Nakamoto, the mysterious creator of Bitcoin.

In most countries, you have a legally protected right to privacy and anonymity if you so choose. Stealing your personal and private information is a crime in most countries. Likewise, the contents of your email in most countries is considered personal, private, and protected by law, although that landscape seems to be changing rapidly.

This change is the very reason many people are now seeking extra privacy and security measures to further ensure that information deemed private will remain private. Weighing Security, Privacy, and AnonymitySometimes the very ideas of security, privacy, and anonymity can be in conflict with one another. For example, you may use a malware detection software that cross-references websites you visit with known websites that harbor malicious and infectious code.

This is very good for protecting your data from harm, but not so good for your privacy if the anti-virus site is keeping track of what websites you visit and when you visit them. This information could even be compromised and stolen or subpoenaed by the government.

This is where you have to make the hard decision between security, privacy, and anonymity. If you live in an oppressive country where you may be fighting for human rights, you would probably choose privacy and anonymity over security. An average Internet user in the United States might just choose the security against malware and accept the loss of his or her anonymity and privacy. All of this resides on a spectrum of consequences that ranges from mild privacy invasion to your life depending on it, and users should act accordingly.

Ask any political dissident in Iran, Syria, or North Korea right now and they would explain this need for privacy and anonymity much more dire terms.“Privacy isn’t about hiding something. It’s about being able to control how we present ourselves to the world. It’s about maintaining a public face while at the same time being permitted private thoughts and actions.

It’s about personal dignity.” – Bruce Schneier, American Cryptographer, and Privacy AdvocateJust remember that the amount of privacy and anonymity you desire is directly proportional to the amount of security you need.

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