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Online, privacy and security go hand-in-hand. They’re often used interchangeably, but that isn’t quite right. While privacy and anonymity might lend themselves to better security, they aren’t the same as security—they’re one aspect of it.

Here we’ll go into privacy and security in the online world. We’ll discuss why you need both, and what you can do to create a more secure online environment for yourself.

Privacy and Security: Are They The Same Thing?

Let’s start by defining just what privacy and security are:

  • Privacy refers to the control that you have over your personal information and how that information is used. Personal information is any information that can be used to determine your identity.
  • Security refers to how protected your personal information is.

Whether or not you choose to share certain details on your social media profile, for example, is a matter of personal privacy. How well a platform like Facebook protects the information that it requires you to provide so you can use the platform is a matter of security.

Here’s another example: say you open a new checking account at your local bank. You have to give that bank your personal information, which they keep on file, to open that account. If you go on to use that account with no breaches of your data, you’ve maintained both privacy and security.

If, however, the bank sells your information to third-party advertisers then your privacy is compromised even if that bank continues to keep your personal information secure from outside attackers. If a data breach occurs and cyber attackers get a hold of your information, both your security and privacy are compromised.

The difference between data privacy and data security comes down to who and what your data is being protected from. Security can be defined as protecting data from malicious threats, while privacy is more about using data responsibly.

This is why you’ll see security measures designed around protecting against data breaches no matter who the unauthorized party is that’s trying to access that data. Privacy measures are more about managing sensitive information, making sure that the people with access to it only have it with the owner’s consent and are compliant with security measures to protect sensitive data once they have it.

Measures like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) are an example of privacy measures in action. It requires companies to inform you upfront about what data they collect and how they intend to use that data. Then, they need your consent in order to collect it.

In the real world, companies can still find ways around measures like this. If they design their app or website or service so that you cannot use it unless you agree to provide them with your data, that doesn’t leave people a whole lot of choice as to the privacy of their data. That’s why some people are taking extra measures to block data collection and protect themselves from threats — enhancing both their privacy and security online.

RELATED: How to See What Data Google Has on You (and Delete It)

How to Better Protect Your Privacy and Security Online

Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to get some degree of anonymity and security online, even if you don’t have a lot of money to spend on it. Measures like incognito browsing, disabling cookies, and using a VPN are all relatively accessible ways to start being safer online.

No one method is absolutely perfect, and you shouldn’t rely on any single solution for complete data security and privacy. Combining them, however, will provide you with greater protection than using one or none.

Use a VPN

Virtual private networks (VPNs) are a popular method for online protection right now, especially when using a vulnerable or unsecured connection like the one at your local coffee shop. VPNs do keep websites and internet service providers (ISPs) from tracking your browser history, and many of them come with some level of protection from attack. But they do have some vulnerabilities you should be aware of.

While a VPN can provide some anonymity by spoofing your internet protocol (IP) address and encrypting your connection, it still leaves you open to other methods of tracking that don’t rely on your location. Browser fingerprinting and social media logins, for example, can be used to piece together your history and give clues to who you are even if you’re browsing with a VPN.

VPNs are a valuable tool, but they’re better used together with incognito mode on a browser to make sure that almost no history gets left behind — including social logins. It’s also a good idea to opt for a VPN that deletes the logs of your information as soon as they’re made.

The Best VPN Services of 2023

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Mullvad VPN
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Mullvad VPN

Take Advantage of Encryption

Using apps with end-to-end encryption is a good way to boost the security of your data online. Messaging services like Signal are encrypted end-to-end, meaning that no one but the sender and recipient of the message can view the data. That’s because the data is encrypted (or scrambled) before being sent, then decrypted only when it hits your device.

One caveat here is to make sure the service you’re using is actually end-to-end encrypted. Telegram, for example, will claim it uses encryption to secure your data, but that’s only true if you start a secure chat in the app, not for all communications.

Practice Good “Digital Hygiene”

Beyond covering your tracks and encrypting your data, there are a few other best practices you can use for better online security and privacy. These include:

  • Limit what you share online and on social media. Constantly checking in at or tagging yourself in certain locations, for example, can give people a better idea of where you’re located. It’s a good idea to regularly review your privacy settings on sites like Facebook so you know who can see what you post. It’s also very easy to limit who can see your activity, and you should take advantage of that as well.
  • Use a secure password manager that you trust, or better yet, keep your digital passwords somewhere offline where they can’t be accessed by bad actors fishing for data.
  • Get antivirus and anti-malware programs and use them regularly.
  • Try ad blocking and cookies blocking extensions for whatever browser you’re using, or check out anonymous browsers like DuckDuckGo.
  • Don’t save credit and debit cards when making online purchases — the store’s system could be vulnerable to attack. Check out as a guest or with a virtual profile.

These are just a few of the measures you can take to make it more difficult for cybercriminals to get to your data. The more roadblocks you can throw in their way, the better.

There’s No “Magic Bullet”

While no one app will guarantee you total anonymity and uncrackable security, several measures used together can make a substantial difference. Many of the methods described here are available at low or no cost — there are even free VPNs. So give them a shot, see what works for you, and maybe breathe a little easier with some added online protection.

RELATED: How to Protect Your Identity Online

Profile Photo for John Bogna John Bogna
John is a freelance writer and photographer based in Houston, Texas. His ten-year background spans topics from tech to culture and includes work for the Seattle Times, the Houston Press, Medium's OneZero, WebMD, and MailChimp. Before moving to The Bayou City, John earned a B.A. in Journalism from CSU Long Beach.
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