Privacy, security, and anonymity: What’s the difference?

Tips & tricks
4 mins
An obscured eye, a shield with a padlock, and a face mask.

Loyal readers of the ExpressVPN blog! We have a PSA for you today… no, not that kind of PSA…well, maybe it is that kind. Today we’re going to look at privacy, security, and anonymity—what they are and what the difference is between them.

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Quite simply:

Privacy is a state of being free from observation.

Security is a state of being free from danger.

Anonymity is a state of being free from identification.

What’s the difference?

First off, there is overlap among the three concepts. Being secure will provide you with privacy, and being anonymous will also provide you with privacy. But each of these terms does mean something different.

Privacy vs. security

Say you’re in the bathroom at a friend’s place and there’s no lock on the door. Sure, you have privacy because you’re in a confined and isolated space but anybody could barge in without knocking. 

In this scenario, you’re private but not secure. For internet users, this means no one can see what you’re browsing or typing, but you’re vulnerable to, say, someone attacking you with a virus that can harm your device. 

On the other hand, say you’re a prisoner under 24-hour surveillance (perhaps in a panopticon-style prison). You might be locked away in your own space, with no one able to harm you, but you are monitored at all times. 

In this scenario, you’re secure but not private. For internet users, this means your device and connection are safe from attacks, but your online activity can be monitored by, say, a Big Tech company like Facebook.

If you’re working on a project at the office and you don’t want to be disturbed, you could close an office door and lock it. 

In this scenario, you’re both private and secure. When it comes to digital safety, this would mean no one can attack you or observe your online activity.

Privacy vs. anonymity

Privacy is not wanting people to know what you’re doing. Have a guilty pleasure show you’re too embarrassed to let your friends know you watch? Not comfortable discussing politics and religion at the dinner table? These are good examples of things you want to keep private.

Anonymity is allowing people to see what you’re doing, but not that you’re the one doing it. Anonymous benefactors are a good example of this. Pseudonymity, like anonymity, is wanting people to know what you’re doing, but without identification. How this differs, is the use of a pseudonym—or fake name—to provide some level of identification. Street-artist artist Banksy is the perfect example of this mindset.

In the context of your online activity, one example of anonymity is browsing a website with the website owner registering your visit but not being able to know who you are.

What can a VPN do?


Privacy represented by an obscured eye.

A VPN, or virtual private network, funnels your internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel to shield your data from third parties such as internet service providers, hackers, and the government. ExpressVPN, for example, uses best-in-class encryption that’s virtually uncrackable.

Masking your IP address is another way VPNs keep you private. If you use your real IP address, your internet activity can be traced back to you. Also, your IP address gives away your general location, which can be further refined with enough data.

To ensure your privacy, ExpressVPN also does not keep logs of your activity or your VPN connections. Records of your VPN use simply do not exist. Read more on our privacy policy.

It should be noted that while a VPN helps to keep your traffic concealed, it will not prevent services like Google and Facebook from monitoring your activity while you use their services. To protect your search history, consider using privacy-friendly search engines like DuckDuckGo.


Security represented by shield with padlock.

The process with which a VPN hides your internet traffic is called tunneling. All data transmitted across the internet is broken down into segments called “packets” that house additional information including its point of origin. Within a VPN tunnel, each data packet is placed inside another data packet before being sent over the internet. This is referred to as encapsulation.

When you’re using unsecured public Wi-Fi, your online activity is especially vulnerable to third-party interception. By using a VPN, you’ll stay safe from attackers who might be trying to see your credit card information or passwords.


Anonymity represented by face mask.

A VPN increases your anonymity online by masking that IP address. By using a VPN, any website or service that you visit online will see a VPN server IP address shared by thousands of users instead of your personal IP address. So even if a website knows someone visited, it does not easily know who. 

While a VPN can help you to be much more anonymous online, it cannot provide total anonymity. One way your identity can be revealed involves piecing together an array of information in a process called browser fingerprinting.

For a more anonymous internet experience, consider combining a VPN with Tor Browser.

Read more: 14 cybersecurity resolutions to stay private in 2021

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