Are “privacy” and “anonymity” mere synonyms, at least, when placed in the context of online safety and IT security? Simply put, no. While privacy and anonymity may have similar tradecraft practices and protocols, the very heart of their differences lay in the desired objective.
Perhaps the most succinct way to tell the two apart is this: think of online privacy measures as a defensive deployment to deter attackers that operate under the stealth of anonymity. In other words …
Privacy uses an active approach to prevent the leakage of data, which is usually executed at the software level. It’s a bit like using camouflage so that the bombers can’t find your bunker.
Anonymity is what makes a stealth bomber, stealthy. Whatever that bomber decides to do next, however, is up to the bomber. Whether or not it decides to kill its target or not, it is kept safe because stealth (anonymity) means missiles can’t find it.
One such service that employs these tactics would be Protonmail. Their end-to-end encryption of your email keeps your communications private. However, their proxy-server location in Switzerland ensures that even if the NSA wanted to take a peek at who sent an email, they’d have no idea who they actually were looking at.
What Is Online Privacy?
- Privacy is seen as an objective with higher legitimacy.
- In a traditional modern democracy, government agencies aren’t usually allowed by law to invade the digital privacy of law-abiding individuals (and would only do so in secret).
- Privacy is seen as a defensive security measure.
- Privacy can be achieved through the use of firewalls, ad-blockers, anti-malware and anti-virus software, and other deterrents to data mining and individual attackers.
What Is Online Anonymity?
- Anonymity is the mode-of-operation.
- Anonymity is often used to prevent governments from tracking the individual’s online activities via the use of special networks, such as Tor and VPN services. In this sense, online anonymity is a lifeline to intelligence operatives and reporters in hostile countries.
Everyone Can Be Found. Not Everyone Wants to Try That Hard.
Whether you seek a titanium wall of privacy or total anonymity, it’s important to realize that the moment an impregnable system exists, it’s already on its deathbed. The world of IT security and Internet privacy is one that is ruled by a gargantuan arms race. Regardless of how strong and robust the defenses, any digital castle can be brought to its knees if an attacker possesses the necessary determination to do so. For this reason, the winner in this game tends to be the stealthy, swift sniper, and not the slow, massive tank.
Wired’s Andy Greenberg, in an article titled How to Be Anonymous Online, argued that by using “cryptographic anonymity tools to hide your identity,” network eavesdroppers “may not even know where to find your communications, let alone snoop on them.”
“Hide in the network,” security guru Bruce Schneier said. “The less obvious you are, the safer you are.”
However, it’s not always about the software, adding layer after layer of protections, rerouting your communications from node to node, bouncing your data packets from Beijing to Jamaica in order to access some private server in Sweden. It’s about being a needle in a field of needles. It’s about not being noticed by the people who may be looking for you. It’s about achieving the transformation into a non-obvious digital being just like the rest of them, and blending in with the billions of others in the information sea.
To trade your uniqueness is engaging in this global shell-game of titanic proportions, the Holy Grail of digital anonymity.
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