Data Privacy vs. Data Security: What Is the Real Difference?

The importance of cybersecurity has been growing exponentially over the last decade. Today, between persistent threats from cyberattacks such as malware and intrusions, accidental or intentional data loss, and data security regulations that impose stiff penalties on companies who ignore their data stewardship responsibilities, data security and privacy remain the hottest of hot topics for IT professionals worldwide.

However, even IT pros are not clear about the differences between data privacy and data security. This blog will explain what those terms have in common and what sets them apart from each other.

What Is Data Privacy?

Data privacy is ensuring that information is not accessed by unauthorized parties and that individuals retain control over their personally identifiable information (PII). Therefore, it is primarily concerned with the procedures and policies that govern the collection, storage and use of PII and proprietary corporate information, such as trade secrets, personnel and internal processes. PII stands out as highly sensitive information because of the civil and criminal liability companies and individuals face if they allow PII to be improperly exposed, whether due to overt actions or inadvertent data security lapses.

Ensuring data privacy requires more than a particular set of techniques or technologies. It also involves training every employee with access to sensitive data on the approved data protection processes. Just as an airplane pilot uses checklists to ensure that critical items are reviewed before flight and monitored during flight, IT pros must also be able and willing to use data privacy policies and other resources to ensure the privacy of PII and other sensitive data.

In particular, to ensure data privacy, IT pros should implement a set of guidelines, processes and procedures that spell out in detail how sensitive data is collected, stored and used by the company and its employees across all its systems. The purpose of this privacy policy is to ensure that all employees realize the importance of data privacy, understand how to help prevent improper exposure of data, and know how to deal with privacy issues and policy breaches.

Breaches of data privacy are no longer just embarrassing or inconvenient for organizations. Now, privacy laws like as HIPAA and the GDPR impose penalties for failure to safeguard the privacy of PII and other highly sensitive personal information. These compliance standards can impose financial sanctions and even criminal charges for intentional and sometimes even unintentional exposure of PII. HIPAA is focused on the protection of healthcare-related personal data in the U.S., while the GDPR imposes a broader set of privacy standards and regulatory compliance requirements on any company that stores or processes the PII of EU residents.

What Is Data Security?

Whereas data privacy is implemented through a set of policies and procedures designed to safeguard the privacy of data, data security involves using physical and logical strategies to protect information from data breaches, cyberattacks, and accidental or intentional data loss.

Specifically, data security is the technologies and techniques that companies use to prevent:

  • Unauthorized access
  • Intentional loss of sensitive data
  • Accidental loss or corruption of sensitive data

Examples of measures for ensuring data security include resilient data storage technologies, encryption of data both at rest and in motion, physical and logical access controls that prevent unauthorized access, data masking, and secure elimination of sensitive data that is no longer needed. Specific techniques include multi-factor authentication, multiple layers of access control at the network and application layer, and the detection and isolation of unauthorized devices as soon as they attach to a network. Regular backups and tested disaster recovery plans are also a big part of data security.

In short, data security is architected by a technologically sophisticated, holistic approach that secures every network, application, device and data repository in an enterprise IT infrastructure.

Data Privacy vs. Data Security

The best way to understand the difference between data security and data privacy is to consider the mechanisms used in data security versus the data privacy policy that governs how data is gathered, handled, and stored. Enterprise security of data could be effective and robust, yet the methods by which that data was gathered, stored or disseminated might violate the privacy policy. For example, a company might ensure that sensitive data is encrypted, masked and properly limited to authorized access only. But if it collects that data improperly, for example, by failing to get informed consent from the owner prior to data collection, data privacy requirements has been violated even though data security remains unbreached.


Considering what’s at stake for companies who are entrusted with the PII of customers and employees, implementing a privacy policy system is no longer just an admirable goal; it’s a mission-critical aspect of every company’s information security framework and operations. Before privacy compliance regulations were enacted, security practices were implemented on a best-effort basis. Now, the security systems that protect data have a direct impact on the risk management strategy of most companies. The protection of security data must now be a priority for every employee, not just IT pros.

Earl is also a 30-year veteran of the computer industry, who worked in IT training, marketing, technical evangelism and market analysis in the areas of networking, systems management, DR/BC, and application performance monitoring. Earl is a regular writer for the computer trade press with many eBooks, white papers, and articles to his credit.