☆ Bite-Size Privacy and Anonymity

Peeping SquirrelA discussion 1 2 3 4 broke out on Identi.ca recently where it became clear that the distinction between anonymity and privacy is not clear for some people. It led to the opportunity to discuss the nature of both concepts (albeit in 140-character bursts) with some smart people devoted to both, people I respect greatly. I’ve been left with some bite-sized explanations that I hope others will appreciate as well.

  • Privacy is the lifecycle of secrets once you have chosen to share them. Anonymity is where an act is publicly known but the actor is not.
  • Privacy is the duty to respect the data that has been disclosed to you. Anonymity is the right not to disclose the data in the first place.
  • Privacy is the duty of each and every entity with which we engage. Anonymity is a privilege each of us should be entitled to on the rare occasions we need it. (By privilege I mean that we are able to secure anonymity only by the grace of those who choose to supply the means for it to be possible. It is not a given – notably in China –  it must be granted.)
  • In daily life, we routinely expect our privacy to be respected by those with whom we engage. We rarely expect or need anonymity but on the occasions we do it must be absolute.
  • To create privacy, we need policies backed up by law that each recipient of our personal data must adhere to. To deliver anonymity, there needs to be a place where our connection with the net is anonymised, and the provision of that capability needs the active grace of its provider.
  • Anonymity requires privacy, but privacy does not require anonymity. (By this I mean that your connection to the internet is known to your ISP, and much else is known to many others, so to secure anonymity in a specific case requires the discretion of those individuals who could identify you if they chose to – and that discretion is called privacy.)

I’ll add further points as they arise. Discussion welcome!

Update: Just a few moments after posting I saw this great Bruce Schneier posting about the dynamics of privacy:

“So privacy for the government increases their power and increases the power imbalance between government and the people … Privacy for the people increases their power. It also increases liberty, because it reduces the power imbalance between government and the people.”

Update: I really like this initiative to create icons for privacy policies by the way.

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4 Responses

  1. I think privacy has to be enforceable. Someone’s choice not to expose information can always be reversed, and in today’s corporations and government agencies, will be. Take the example of company X, which holds personally identifying information (PII), but chooses not to expose or sell it. If company Y buys company X, that information is now in play and privacy may be breached.

    Phil Windley in Utah, USA, has had an intermittent discussion on his blog about a “personal information store” and the necessity for enforceable controls on the use of one’s PII to prevent any particular entity from accessing PII without the individual’s express permission or from using PII in ways broader than that permission. He’s looking at it from a speculative, future (ways to produce value) standpoint. But some of the concepts, in my opinion, are applicable today.

    Thanks for the discussion. Your opinion is valued. Much of the confusion comes from the reality that laws and regulations have not caught up with digital realities. Discussions like these may inform the decisions our governmental leaders make in the process of catching up.

    • Thanks for that comment. The “VRM” movement in which people like Doc Searls participate also works to create mechanisms by which the levers of privacy can remain in the hands of the data subject.

      I believe our future privacy depends in equal measure on technical innovations that leave the data subject in control of their data and on binding global legislation that backs up the expectation of privacy based on published policies with draconian consequences for a failure to honor those policies.

      I’ve also suggested before that the data subject should retain the copyright on their personal data and be able to use all the legal sanctions corporations are creating to enforce copyrights to also enforce privacy. A sort of copyleft for personal data!

  2. Tiny comment, a great example of both I guess would be voting… private as the choice is between you and yourself (unless you choose to disclose it) and anonymous as no one “should” be able to trace the vote back to you.

  3. […] Bite-Size Privacy and Anonymity # Privacy is the lifecycle of secrets once you have chosen to share them. Anonymity is where an act is publicly known but the actor is not. # Privacy is the duty to respect the data that has been disclosed to you. Anonymity is the right not to disclose the data in the first place. […]

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