Let’s do a little exercise. Go back in time to 15 years ago. Try to remember a time before iPhones, widespread social media adoption, and Google didn’t do a lot more than search.
Imagine talking to yourself and saying that in a few years, you will carry a small computer (called a smartphone for some reason) that will do amazing things. It will replace your camera, your maps, gaming console, and so much more. But it will also track where you are located at all times.
Besides, it creates personalized advertisements based on what you look at online, listens to your conversations, records your health data, and more.
What would your past self say about this? Would you be fine with this trade-off? Yes or no, it definitely would have made you uncomfortable. And yet this is exactly what we’ve accepted now in the future.
Advocates of personal privacy have finally won a few small victories. Thanks to the EU General Data Protection Regulation, companies must be more transparent about what they do with your data. However, there is still a long way to go.
As you keep up with these trends, and possibly even participate in them yourself, you’ll hear a few familiar-sounding terms. Although there is some overlap in their meaning, they don’t exactly mean the same thing.
That’s why we’re breaking down the difference between privacy, anonymity, and pseudonymity to help you get a better sense of what these words mean and how they apply to your life.
What is Pseudonymity?
We’re just going to answer this quickly since it’s the simplest of these terms—though still important. Pseudonymity means you are not using your legal name to identify yourself. Though you can also be anonymous while using pseudonyms, that’s not always the case or intention.
For example, Mark Twain was the famous pseudonym of Samuel Clemens, who was far from anonymous. Nonetheless, pseudonymity can be used to empower individuals under the following two concepts.
What is Privacy?
For most people, privacy is the most important of these terms. It’s also the most encompassing. Privacy is “the state or condition of being free from being observed or disturbed by other people.”
Privacy is your ability to keep certain things to yourself. For example, you are likely to lock the door when you go to the restroom. You’re not doing anything criminal or unusual but simply would like your activities kept to yourself.
Privacy is not for criminals or for people with “something to hide.” It is a fundamental human need. In all societies, people have found a way to create privacy for themselves.
What is Anonymity?
Anonymity “describes situations where the acting person’s identity is unknown…a person [must] be non-identifiable, unreachable, or untrackable.” In contrast to privacy, anonymity is generally when you want people to see what you do, but you don’t want them to know that it’s you who’s doing it.
It’s frequently seen in the case of whistleblowers who observe a crime or abuse of power and want to report these individuals without reprisals.
Anonymity is the backbone of free and democratic societies while also a powerful tool for those to report injustices in dictatorial governments.
Together, privacy and anonymity are extremely critical tools. The right to privacy allows you to vote for whomever you wish and keep that information to yourself. Anonymity creates a space for the truth to come out without fear of revenge.
How to Improve Privacy and Anonymity in Our Connected Age
We’ve come a long way in the last fifteen years. But if we’ve learned anything, it’s that core values like privacy and anonymity are increasingly under siege despite the modest gains made by advocates over the last few years.
In the old days, to work towards these ideals, people leaked information to the press, wrote anonymous letters, and more. Nowadays, much of this has shifted to the online world.
The best tool to defend privacy and anonymity is a VPN. VPNs or virtual private networks both conceal your IP address and encrypt your internet connection. You might be thinking, “what is my IP address and why should I hide it?”
Your IP address is one of the clearest indicators that it’s you who is using a certain device. They allow those personalized ads to follow you around the internet and your approximate location and more sensitive information about you.
Combined with secure web browsers and other tools, it’s best to get better daily privacy and create a space for anonymity when you need it.