Anonymity is about freedom. Privacy is about control. Confidentiality is about trust.
These three words are not synonyms, and the difference between them is bigger than just hairsplitting. Understanding online privacy vs anonymity, and knowing that confidentiality isn’t the same as either, are vital steps toward protecting your rights to all three.
The people working against you don’t want you to understand these things. If somebody promises you anonymity when you’re looking for privacy, they have an advantage over you. However, once you know the definition of anonymity, privacy and confidentiality, you’ll be able to choose the right tools to protect yourself.
How Does Privacy Differ From Anonymity Online?
Pretty much everyone knows about Batman.
If you don’t, text the nerdiest person you know and ask them to explain it to you. Chances are, they’ll say something like this: Bruce Wayne is a billionaire playboy who fights crime disguised as a giant bat.
You may have gotten some other details — he’s an orphan, he hates clowns, his butler does all the real work — but for this article, we’re most concerned with Batman’s relationship to privacy and anonymity.
Bruce Wayne lives in an enormous mansion. When he’s in his home, he can do whatever he likes (within reason). Nobody will know about his interest in bats unless he chooses to let them in. Bruce enjoys the same right as every other American: the right to privacy.
We can’t overlook, though, that the Waynes are the most famous family in Gotham City. The mansion is literally named after them. Nobody could walk past Wayne Manor and think “Huh. I wonder who lives there.”
Now, let’s say Bruce suits up, has Alfred gas up the Batmobile, and heads out into the night. He interrupts a bank robbery in progress and beats up the criminals, who never know they’ve just been punched by Bruce Wayne.
Hidden in plain sight as Batman, Bruce Wayne enjoys anonymity. When Commissioner Gordon asks who caught the bank robbers, he’ll know it was Batman right away, but he won’t know who’s behind the mask. Batman’s actions aren’t hidden; in public, on the street, he has no privacy.
It’s the same with everybody who goes around protected by a mask, costume or pseudonym. The Lone Ranger. Banksy. Borat. Everyone on The Masked Singer. Every user of Reddit, most of Tumblr and much of Twitter.
When you’re private but not anonymous, you’re in your own personal Wayne Manor. People know who you are, but not what you’re doing. When you’re anonymous but not private, people know the actions but not who is doing them.
If I read your diary, I’d be violating your privacy. If I doxed you (shared your address or phone number with hostile parties), I’d be violating your anonymity — just as surely as if I’d pulled off Batman’s mask.
Get the picture?
What Is Online Privacy?
In the previous section, we defined privacy like this: you may be identifiable, but personal information about you is not.
Another way to think of it: you have total control over all data that concerns you. For anybody to see any of that data, you have to give your consent first.
It’s crucial to understand that this decision need not be based on anything other than your preference. You don’t have to explain why you’re keeping your personal information private. Your desire is enough.
In the United States, the right to privacy is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.”
Yet there are exceptions and conditions on each of our rights to keep things private. The Fourth Amendment itself provides for search warrants. Your tax return is not private, because you don’t have control over when you file it. And so on.
It’s also common for these exceptions to be transactional: if I don’t give up certain pieces of information, I can’t get things I want in return. If I go to a coffee shop without any cash and refuse to hand over the financial information from my debit card, I can’t have any coffee.
The internet frequently works the same way. It’s impossible to use most services without creating an account. Even if you sign up with a false name and a burner email address, that false name becomes an identity that begins to attract data.
But there’s good news. Online privacy can be preserved by means of encryption.
Suppose you’re signing up for a messenger service. You have to give them your name and phone number to use the app, so they can always identify who you are when you’re online.
However, this is a trustworthy service, so they offer end-to-end encryption of all data. When a message is sent, it’s instantly scrambled into nigh-unbreakable code, only to be decrypted once it reaches its recipient.
“End-to-end” means the encryption also applies to the app company — they’ll only be able to see your messages as encrypted data.
Cloud storage services are another common example of encryption-based privacy. When you sign up for a cloud service like Dropbox, you’re voluntarily placing your private data on somebody else’s server. To counter that risk, Dropbox encrypts every file saved on their network, so that only the user is able to read them.
What Is Online Anonymity?
At the start of this article, we described anonymity as the ability to do anything without anybody knowing it’s you doing it. The action is seen clearly, but not the instigator.
While privacy is being behind the closed door of your room, anonymity is being one stranger on a street full of other strangers. Online, however, it’s a little stronger than that.
When writing a blog or posting on a forum, you want your message to be seen — if it’s private, it can’t be read. With anonymity, you can make your voice heard without suffering the consequences of your words.
Granted, this can go badly. Some people use online anonymity to engage in hate speech they wouldn’t dare spew out in person. But criticism is the foundation of a free society. Anonymity helps make citizens of a democracy comfortable with critiquing their government, and for that alone, I think it’s worthwhile.
What Is Pseudonymity?
The most common form of online anonymity is the use of a handle. On Twitter, Reddit and other social sites, everyone goes by false names. You can use a photo that doesn’t look like you, act totally different than you would in real life, and delete your profile and start over whenever you want.
This is called pseudonymity. It’s any community where your actions are ascribed to a consistent identity which isn’t associated with your real one.
In our superhero example, Batman has enough of a reputation that people know him by sight, but the actions can’t be traced back to Bruce Wayne. The pseudonym itself becomes the identity.
Spoiler alert, though: few pseudonym-based communities are actually anonymous, since it’s easy to trace a person’s social media activity through their IP address — or sometimes even basic detective work.
What Is Online Confidentiality?
Sometimes you can’t maintain total data privacy. Imagine an appointment with your doctor where everything you said to them was encrypted. Your medical records would stay totally private, but it would be useless for getting that strange growth looked at.
That’s when our third concept comes into play: confidentiality.
Confidentiality is when you tell someone something in confidence. You choose to release some of your private information to another entity, with the understanding that it won’t be shared outside that relationship. For example, Bruce Wayne trusts his butler, Alfred, to keep his Batman secret confidential.
Essentially, confidentiality is privacy with benefits. Your private information is still controlled, only this time, it’s by a shared confidentiality agreement instead of just your preferences.
Medical information, things discussed in therapy, sensitive job details and religious confessions are protected by confidentiality. So, theoretically, are your internet activities — confidential between you and your internet service provider, or you and your search engine.
Sadly, it’s because most ISPs and search engines value their profits over your rights. They take information that should be confidential and bury clauses in their user agreements that allow them to sell your activity to advertisers.
Scroll down to “How to Protect Your Privacy Online” to learn how you can stop them.
Which Is More Important: Anonymity vs Privacy?
Privacy and anonymity are both important. Which one is more important depends on what you’re trying to do on the internet.
Privacy is most important for financial transactions. When paying or receiving money on the internet, you need to be identified for the transfer to work. But if the info leaks, your identity can be stolen.
Anonymity is most important for messaging. To express an opinion, especially one your government might find dangerous, you want a guarantee that the content you produce won’t be traced back to you.
How to Protect Your Privacy Online
When you send a search query to Google, only two parties are supposed to know about it: you and Google. So how do third-party advertisers keep using private information to send you creepy ads?
Confidentiality requires enforcement. The law should protect you from ISPs and search engines breaking their confidentiality agreements, but internet utilities are not nearly as afraid of the law as they should be.
The result? To use most apps, you have to sign a user agreement first, which is almost certainly stuffed with fine print that lets them sell your data: search queries, browsing history and even your physical location.
You’ve technically given your consent, but only because nobody has 15 spare hours (or a lawyer on retainer) to read the whole thing. You’re also not given much of a choice — either agree to the terms or don’t use the service.
Here’s how to protect your privacy and anonymity so you can keep enjoying the internet the way you like — without your actions being used against you.
How to Stay Anonymous Online
Our guide here goes into detail about anonymous web surfing, but in short, the best way is to use a VPN.
A VPN, or Virtual Private Network, gets you both privacy and anonymity. To make sure all your transactions are private, it encrypts your data so that none of your searches or transactions are visible to third parties.
To ensure anonymity, a VPN masks your website requests from your ISP by running them through proxy servers. If they try to track your activity to sell you targeted ads, all they can see is the general location of the VPN’s server. Your actions can’t be traced back to you: near-perfect anonymity.
Final Thoughts on Online Anonymity vs Privacy
I told you at the top that anonymity is about freedom, while privacy is about control. But in the end, they’re both about the same thing: the ability to determine which parts of you the world sees. That’s more than a constitutional right. It’s a human right.
If you’ve had experiences with anonymity, privacy or confidentiality, or you’ve got a favorite app for any of them that we didn’t mention, we’d love to hear from you in the comments. Thanks for reading.