Deep Thoughts

Pedantic About Privacy

Holidays are over, and it’s back to work time, which means quite a bit of research on privacy. Privacy is a particularly thorny topic. The concept is always contextually defined, which makes standardizing technology and policy to support privacy difficult. The challenges do not get easier when different concepts are regularly conflated or subsumed under the umbrella of privacy.

Given my roles as editor, technical writer, and group facilitator, I need to know if my clients or collaborators are talking about big-picture privacy or something more specific. Let’s look at four particular terms whose definitions are regularly attributed to (or conflated with) “privacy.”


Anonymity can be part of privacy, but not necessarily. If I were to draw a Venn diagram, there would be substantial overlap, as they both involve keeping some things to yourself. Anonymity, however, is about keeping your identity private. Your actions, however, are entirely out there. Using a pen name, for example, or offering a forum comment as “Anonymous” are examples of anonymity.

Privacy, however, includes keeping whatever you want to yourself. This can include your identity; it can also include your actions. That’s where it diverges from anonymity. If your biggest concern is keeping your identity to yourself while still keeping your actions on record, you’re looking for anonymity, not privacy.


If you do a web search on “privacy vs. confidentiality,” you will find a wealth of material insisting on the distinction. Unfortunately, the distinctions being made assign various meanings to both terms. So if privacy is about choice and anonymity is about identity, what about confidentiality?

In the research community, confidentiality focuses on the data. In contrast, privacy focuses on the person (here’s an example from the University of California – Irvine’s Office of Research and another from the University of Kentucky). Other sites focus more on secrecy (which we’ll touch on later in this post) and control of disclosure. But wait, there’s more! Lawyers in Australia have this take:

“‘Privacy’ is used in relation to information that is protected under law (normally under the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth)), whereas ‘confidentiality’ refers to different information contained in valid contracts and agreements.” — Etheringtons Solicitors


The fuzziness around confidentiality is a good lead into the concept of secrecy. Colloquially speaking, privacy is “none of your business,” whereas secrecy is “I’m ashamed of anyone finding out this information.” People tend to see privacy as an acceptable choice and secrecy as a negative act.

When it comes to policy and technology, most lawmakers avoid using the term “secrecy.” Researchers diving into the differences between secrecy and privacy use the philosophical consideration of morals to find the dividing line between the two concepts. (If you have access to an academic library, this article, while old, is an interesting read.)


Last but not least, there’s the concept of security. In most cases, security is more about how your information is protected from unintended disclosure as opposed to why your information is protected. Making sure the information is protected is necessary to support privacy, but it is still a separate concept. Privacy relies on security, but so does managing a keycard system to control access to an office building.

Wrap up

On the one hand, yay for flexibility in language! It allows us to express meaning in ever-evolving ways, adapting to the circumstance and allowing for several levels of communication. Also, boo for flexibility in language! It means that if you’re not careful, you could be having two entirely different conversations with the same words—communication failure.

Privacy is a big topic; what I am researching now is just the tip of the iceberg. If you are interested in a deeper dive into the world of privacy, I encourage you to follow Debbie Reynolds. She has a great podcast and newsletter you might enjoy.

Thank you for reading my post! Please leave a comment if you found it useful.

If you want to start your own blog or improve your writing, you might be interested in another effort I’m spinning up, The Writer’s Comfort Zone.

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