Data Privacy Explained: Protecting Your Online Information

Stay informed on data privacy with our comprehensive guide. Learn about the role of data privacy in the digital age and how to protect your data online.

Brien Posey

May 7, 2024

7 Min Read
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Data privacy is becoming increasingly critical and complex with each passing day. Essentially, it is about the rights individuals hold over their personal data and the responsibilities companies have to properly handle, store, access, and protect sensitive information.

Distinguishing Data Privacy From Data Security

Data privacy and data security are closely intertwined, often overlapping, yet distinct concepts. While they share commonalities, they address different aspects of data protection.

To differentiate between data privacy and data security, let’s consider a scenario where someone enters their credit card details on an e-commerce site. The encrypted connection keeps the credit card number information private, rendering the information inaccessible to any unauthorized entity monitoring the website. However, despite the privacy provided by encryption, encryption does not guarantee security. For instance, if the user’s computer is infected with malware while shopping on the website, there is a significant security risk, even though the online session is technically private.

Another way to think about the difference between privacy and security is that data security focuses on thwarting unauthorized access to data and preventing breaches. Conversely, data privacy is often more concerned with ensuring that sensitive information is handled appropriately to prevent accidental exposure. Additionally, privacy involves ethical considerations to deter the misuse of sensitive data.

Related:What Is Network Security? Basics and Types of Security for Networks

The Significance of Data Privacy in the Digital Age

Data privacy has always been important, but its relevance has grown in the digital age due to the ease with which data can be harvested and shared.

How personal information is collected and used online

There are countless methods through which personal data is gathered online. Although some of these methods may be nefarious, users occasionally volunteer their personal information. Any time that a user fills out a web form results in the collection of personal data. That information could potentially be shared with other sites.

Another common method of gathering personal information is through cookies and other tracking technologies. Cookies make it possible to collect data about a user – for example, the user’s browsing history, time spent on pages, and clicked links.

Although disabling cookies can enhance privacy to some extent, modern browsers often prompt users to log in, thereby associating a digital identity with the browser. This practice makes it even easier for companies to track users’ online behavior.

Social media platforms also play a role in collecting personal information. When a user interacts with a social media site, the site owners will typically collect information on the user’s posts and their connections to other users. The data collected is almost always sold to advertisers and other interested parties.

Additionally, personal information is collected when users make online purchases. Users input personal details into web forms during the purchase process, which may then be sold to partners or affiliates. Companies might even sell information about website visitors who haven’t made purchases.

Consumer e-mail services are notorious for collecting personal information, as well. Users typically grant providers the right to harvest data from their messages in exchange for a free e-mail account.

The bottom line is that personal data can be collected in any number of different ways. Data brokers compile information from a variety of sources, including public records, to create comprehensive profiles available for purchase.

Real-life consequences of inadequate data protection

Inadequate data protection can lead to innumerable consequences. Identity theft is easily one of the most serious concerns, often resulting in financial loss, reputational damage, and perhaps even legal consequences.

Furthermore, personal data can expose individuals to cyberstalking or online harassment. Such harassment can consist of relentless trolling, bullying, extortion, and, in some cases, physical harm to the victim.

Implementing Data Privacy Measures

Given the seriousness of the consequences associated with inadequate data protection, individuals must follow best practices for protecting their digital privacy.

Best practices for individuals to guard their data

There is an entire laundry list of actions individuals can take to safeguard their data. As a starting point, individuals should adhere to basic IT security best practices, such as using strong, unique passwords (preferably with multifactor authentication enabled), keeping devices up to date, and only installing reputable software from trusted sources.

Beyond that, individuals should focus on two main things. Firstly, they must learn how to recognize phishing messages and online scams. Avoiding these types of threats can go a long way toward keeping your data private.

Secondly, individuals must exercise extreme caution when it comes to sharing personal information. It’s best to completely avoid entering potentially sensitive information into online forms, posting such details on social media, or unnecessarily divulging such information with others, including businesses.

What businesses can do to ensure data privacy compliance

The first step in ensuring privacy compliance is identifying the applicable regulations for the business. Additionally, the business may have supplementary privacy obligations based on state or local laws, or even clauses buried in its Terms of Use.

The next step should be to conduct a Privacy Impact Assessment and establish a system for monitoring data access and usage. An organization should also implement mechanisms for obtaining consent for data collection and automatically purging sensitive data when it is no longer needed. It’s important to require vendors to adhere to the organization’s privacy policy and have an incident response plan in place.

Advancements in Data Privacy Technology

As organizations face increasing pressure to protect personally identifiable data, they are adopting an array of encryption and secure data management tools to comply with privacy mandates.

The role of encryption and secure data management tools

No single tool can address all potential data privacy concerns. As such, organizations typically take a defense-in-depth approach, using various types of encryption and data privacy tools. These might include data loss prevention products, data lifecycle management tools, password managers, endpoint security technologies, and secure storage vaults, just to name a handful.

Innovations that are changing the landscape of data privacy

Organizations are embracing AI as a tool for enhancing data privacy. At a minimum, this can mean using AI-based security tools to detect anomalies that could signal a potential breach. However, there are other ways to use AI. Some organizations are experimenting with AI as a tool for anonymizing data, enabling analysis without revealing personally identifiable information (PII).

Challenges and Considerations in Data Privacy

Although data privacy tools are improving, several challenges persist, ranging from legal complexities to technical issues to the very methods of data collection.

Balancing convenience and privacy in the tech-savvy world

One of the major challenges for individuals is that of balancing convenience with privacy. For example, syncing your web data across all your devices is undoubtedly convenient, yet it likely means sharing browsing history with companies. These companies may then sell the information they collect to the highest bidder.

For businesses, one of the biggest data privacy challenges is navigating cross-border data protection requirements. Simply put, each jurisdiction maintains its own set of data privacy laws. A form of data collection that is legal in one jurisdiction might be illegal in another.

An organization may even find that it operates in regions that have contradictory data privacy laws. For example, while one area mandates the deletion of personally identifiable information after 60 days, another requires its retention for at least 90 days. As such, organizations must figure out how to navigate this complex legal terrain to ensure compliance across borders.


Q: What is data privacy, and why is it important?

A: Data privacy essentially means preventing sensitive information from being disclosed or used for unauthorized purposes. Sensitive information is any data that should not be made public. For individuals, sensitive information can include social security numbers, browsing history, personal medical records, and much more. Preserving data privacy is important for mitigating risks such as identity theft, doxing, and targeted scams. Additionally, respecting privacy rights is vital for fostering trust in digital interactions.

Q: How can individuals take control of their online privacy?
A: In jurisdictions with “right to be forgotten” laws, individuals can request that companies delete their personal information. Platforms like Google offer options to request the removal of personal information from websites. This goes beyond the basics such as addresses and phone numbers to include photographs, scanned signatures, and other digital media.

Individuals can also use privacy-enhancing tools like browser extensions, VPNs, and encrypted messaging services to protect their online activities and communications.

Q: What are some common data protection measures businesses should implement?

A: As a starting point, businesses must determine their data privacy obligations and assess their current data handling practices. Only then is it possible to address any privacy shortcomings.

At a bare minimum, organizations should encrypt personally identifiable data and limit access to only authorized employees. Additionally, it’s important to regularly audit data access as a way of preventing misuse and ensuring compliance with privacy regulations. Other key steps include implementing cybersecurity controls, providing employee training on data security, and maintaining transparency with customers about the business’s data usage policies.

About the Author(s)

Brien Posey

Brien Posey is a bestselling technology author, a speaker, and a 20X Microsoft MVP. In addition to his ongoing work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years training as a commercial astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space.

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