Sriram Viswanathan

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Privacy - 9 - Security vs Privacy


If I mention the word security, the usual connotations that come to mind are - confidentiality, integrity and availability (CIA). This is usually the first definition anyone in the security domain would come up with.

Ask the same question but now about privacy, usually people would talk about things like online tracking, surveillance, how they are being shown these creepy ads etc.

The difference is stark in the sense that one (security) has its definition rooted in strictly measurable/testable terms and the other maybe not so much.

In this post, I will try to shed some light on how these can and should be seen in a different lens and become more privacy-aware.

What are we protecting ? and from whom ?

Before we focus on either security or privacy, we should first make clear what we are protecting and from whom ?.

Usually, we are talking about protecting data that’s stored somewhere - sensitive information, that if disclosed in an unauthorized way, could lead some sort of harm.

If disclosure is unauthorized, who is the authorizing person ?

Now, you must ask - who is the person that authorizes data access/disclosure ? Since data is in constant flow, being converted from one form to another, the ownership of any piece of data keeps changing hands and hence the person who owns the data also changes. This owner has the responsibility of now making sure that the data is handled in an authorized way.

What does authorized mean ?

Usually used from a security perspective, it means that someone has been given or provided with explicit access to certain piece of data. This is usually black and white - either someone has access or they do not. By access, I mean ‘read’, ‘write’, ‘update’ or ‘delete’ operations. Security, then, is like a set of keys that provides a granular way to restrict data access.

Implicit vs Explicit Authorization

When data flows through a system consisting of a series of components that take data as input, process it and output data, these authorizations can change from one component to the next in the flow and thus either restricting access to the data or widening access to it. Every change in the scope of authorization/“who’s authorized” affects how the data would be seen in a new light or used for a new purpose or restricted in terms of its use/purpose.

Such a system can enforce such authorizations either implicitly i.e. as part of the system’s property (e.g. using cryptography) or explicitly i.e. as part of assigned controls (e.g. access-controls).

Online data market & Explicit Authorizations

The online data market is a complex market-place with all sorts of participants like data-brokers, media companies, social networks, ad-tech companies etc. All these participants collect/buy data through direct or indirect means.

You might ask - who authorized them to access all this data ? We all did - unknowingly/knowingly - we all use online services that are provided to us for free in-exchange for the data they collect.

What happened to all the talk about Security then ?

Security is something is intentionally put in place - it is part of the design of a system or a component that makes up the system. This intentionality can take the form of many levels of security - it is always a balance, how secure is enough for the system under consideration ? By enough, we want to say what is sufficient to protect the data from plausible threat vectors to the system. This plausible list of threat vectors/actors is also something that is a balancing act in terms of prioritization - what is a more plausible threat vs what is highly implausible ?. The intentionality of the security measures in place reflects these priorities.

But then, Privacy ?

Historically, privacy as a concern has taken a back-seat and this is a proved by how much personal/sensitive data is out there for sale/marketing/advertising etc.

The previously mentioned intentionality remained restricted to isolated systems and their internal components and did not focus on the data that makes it way from one system to another in this online data market.

Also, the authorization given to these data market participants was so wide that anyone could use it for any purpose without any legal consequences.

How do I talk about Privacy then the next time someone starts mixing it up with Security ?

Talk to them about -

  • Who is the original owner of this data ?
  • What purposes is the data being used for and is there clear authorization for collection and use of such data and for said purpose ?
  • How would an unauthorized disclosure of this data (even in a transformed format) affect the person or maybe a group that the person belongs to ?

Final Thoughts

Even with all good intentioned security measures, privacy can take a back seat - we don’t know how our data is being collected, transformed and used across a wide variety of online systems.

As long as there’s a lack of transparency in how the online data marketplace works, we will just have to rely on awareness as a way to talk about steps that we can all take individually to reduce our digital footprint while being a privacy conscious netizen.