Privacy and Security, Defined
Recently, in an IRC chat room I hang out in, specific to the topic of Security a person more or less mentioned the following:
There’s a secure search engine, described at (link), what are people’s thoughts about it?
I made the comment that, at least according to their link, the search engine was privacy focused, and that the use of the term “secure” was incorrect in their statement. While they agreed with me, I see the distinction between Privacy and Security blurred quite commonly, and the distinction is incredibly important.
Privacy is defined as the following:
the quality or state of being apart from company or observation and freedom from unauthorized intrusion
What these mean, in practice is that privacy is the act, or the state, of keeping your personal information from external parties. The important part here is it’s our private data, where privacy is being used as an adjective. For example, private data about you being shared to other entities is potentially a loss of privacy.
Security is defined as the following:
the quality or state of being secure: such as … freedom from danger
So in practice, we implement safeguards (be that procedure, systems, etc) that are designed to protect ourselves - or in this specific case to protect our data. Like Privacy, Security can be a state - but more often we use it as a verb.
Another way to look at the distinction between privacy and security is that security (verb) is often the process, system, software, etc that safeguards our personal, private (adjective) data. In other words, data can be public or private - and it’s the private data we want to protect through secure procedures and the process and systems we use to protect this data is “security”.
Another important thing to remember is that while we have a good deal of control over our private information, we don’t necessarily have much control over the security of some systems that hold our data. For example, you can choose to use a company like Facebook - and any private information you provide to Facebook - but
Below are a few examples that can hopefully illustrate how security and privacy are different, and why the distinction matters.
Example 1 - Forum Posts That Are Leaked
We’ve seen cases where member lists, and their associated posts have been leaked. For example, recently “WeLeakData” has been hacked , and their private messages have been leaked.
From a data perspective, they have both public and private information. The Public information is the main website, maybe some posts, and so on. The Private information is the data associated with the direct messages between users. When thinking of privacy - do the people who had their information leak use more private communication options (e.g. Tor, VPN, etc)? Did the private communication include personal details (finance information, personal information, etc)?
The participants in these forums lost part of their privacy, but probably have not been compromised (unless using shared passwords across sites). The owning group had the security breached, and the users had their private information stolen. So from the perspective of the owning group - they had a violation of security, as well as privacy. Whereas, the users had a violation of privacy but not necessarily security.
Example 2 - Equifax Data Breach
Back in 2017, Equifax was breached and privacy information for many citizens were disclosed . Much like example 1, we have two groups involved - Equifax, and affected citizens.
From the citizen’s point of view, there was a loss of privacy due to the breach. Their personal, private information was leaked and sold. Their security, from this specific incident wasn’t violated - but, it can be violated through the use of this information to affect those citizens. For example, an attacker can now attempt to open accounts in the person’s name. But, it’s still important to understand is that while a loss of privacy can lead to a loss of (physical) security, they still aren’t the same because we’re now talking about the probability of multiple events with multiple actors involved.
From Equifax’s point of view, they had a breach of security but not as much a loss of privacy (compared to citizens). While some of their employees may have been affected, the company as a whole not as much. Through litigation, they may have a further loss of privacy. But, much like the Citizen point of view, this is now multiple events we’re talking about. The breach of security resulted in the loss of private information (both citizens, and likely their internal organization function)
Example 3 - Wifi Breach
This happens periodically, and could happen to most of the readers of this article. This is more a hypothetical situation, but has happened to very large companies like TJX back in 2007. But, it happens to general individuals too.
In this particular hypothetical situation, lets assume that the hacker is getting into a poorly protected network (weak password, WEP, etc). Their motivation may be as simple as using someone else’s internet connection instead of paying for their own internet.
From the Wifi owner’s perspective, there’s a breach in security. The password was hacked, and someone is on the network. But, is it a loss of privacy? Not really. Can this result in a loss of privacy if the attacker decides to poke at the systems on the network? Yeah, it can. But, much like the two examples above we’re now talking about multiple events here. The first event was the attack on the network and breach (joining) within the network. The second event may not happen, and the attacker stops and simply uses the internet for browsing Reddit.
I hope these examples help better clarify the difference between Security and Privacy and how they are not the same, and shouldn’t be confused as such. When it comes to the internet, our best defense when we have no control over the security of the system our private data is stored on is - simply - do not allow the storage of that information. Our focus on security should be in our locus of control; that being our own networks, machines, and data that we can modify (e.g. Cloud Storage).