Privacy v. Data Protection. What is the Difference?

Posted by fgilbert on October 1st, 2014

I recently participated in a discussion about the difference between “privacy” and “data protection.” My response was “it depends.” It depends on the country. It may also depend on other factors.

When some countries use the term “privacy,” they may mean the same thing or refer to the same principles as what other countries identify as “data protection.” In other countries, “data protection” may be used to mean “information security” and to overlap only slightly with “privacy.” In this case, the term “data protection” may encompass more than just the protection of personal information (but only through security measures). It may cover as well the protection of confidential or valuable information, trade secrets, know-how, or similar information assets.

In the extensive research I conducted when writing my two-volume treatise, Global Privacy and Security Law, which provides an in-depth analysis of the laws of about 70 countries on all continents, I noticed that the use of the terms “privacy” and “data protection” varies from country to country. It may depend on the language spoken in that particular country. It may depend on the region where the country is located.

While in the United States the term “privacy” seems to prevail when identifying the rules and practices regarding the collection, use and processing of personal information, outside the United States, the term “data protection” tends to be more widely used than “privacy.” Among other things, this might be due to the idiosyncrasies of the languages spoken in the respective countries, as explained below.

— “Data Protection” Outside the United States

Throughout the world, “data protection” is frequently used to designate what American privacy professionals call “privacy”, i.e., the rules and practices regarding the handling of personal information or personal data, such as the concepts of notice, consent, choice, purpose, security, etc.


In Europe, “data protection” is a key term used, among other things, to designate the agencies or individuals supervising the handling of personal information. The 1995 EU Data Protection Directive identifies these agencies as “Data Protection Supervisory Authority.” See, e.g. 1995 EU Data Protection Directive, Article 28 defining the “Data Protection Supervisory Authority,” the agency that regulates and oversees the handling of personal data in an EU Member State. The individuals responsible for the handling of personal information within a company – a role similar to, but different from, that of the American Chief Privacy Officer – are designated as “Data Protection Official.” See, e.g. 1995 EU Data Protection Directive, Article 18(2) and Article 19.


Outside Europe, the term “data protection” is also frequently used to designate activities that Americans would designate as “privacy” centric. In Asia, for example, the laws of Malaysia, Singapore, and Taiwan are named “Personal Data Protection Act.” The law of Japan is called “Act on the Protection of Personal Information.” South Korea’s laws, APICNU and the recent Personal information Protection Act also use the term “data protection.”


African countries also use the concept of “data protection” rather than “privacy.” South Africa named its new law “Protection of Personal Information Act.” Tunisia and Morocco, also named their privacy laws “law relating to the protection of individuals with respect to the processing of personal data.”


In the Americas, Canada’s PIPEDA stands for Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act. The new Mexican law is called “Ley Federal de Protección de Datos Personales.”

—  “Privacy” in Foreign Laws

On the other hand, the term “privacy” is seldom used to identify foreign laws or regimes dealing with the protection of personal information. There are, however, a few example of the use of the term “privacy” outside the United States. APEC used the term “privacy” for its 2004 “APEC Privacy Framework.” The law of the Philippines is called “Data Privacy Act.”

— Translations of “Privacy”

When analyzing which term is used to address the protection of personal data throughout the world, it is also important to keep in mind that the word “privacy” (as understood in the United States) does not exist in some languages.


It is very difficult to translate “privacy” into French. There is no such word in French, even though the French are highly private and very much concerned about the protection of their personal information. If you look for a translation, you will find that “privacy” is translated into French as “intimité,” which is inaccurate, or very narrow. The French “intimité” is actually equivalent to “intimacy” in English and has little to do with the US concept of “privacy” or “information privacy.” Indeed, the French law of 2004 does not refer to “intimacy” but is titled “Act relating to the protection of individuals with regard to the processing of personal data.”


There is a similar disconnect with the translation of “privacy” into Spanish where “privacy” is translated into “privacidad,” which has a meaning closer to intimacy, remoteness, or isolation. Unsurprisingly, the Spanish law regarding data privacy is named “Organic Law data protection law on the Protection of Personal Data.” The term “privacidad” is not used.


 — Data Protection as “Security”

On the other hand, in the US, the term “privacy” seems to prevail. We commonly refer to HIPAA or COPPA as “privacy laws.”

What about “data protection”? I have noticed that, many US information security professional tend to use the term “data protection” to mean protecting the security of information, i.e. the protection of the integrity and accessibility of data. In this case, they do not distinguish the protection of personal data from the protection of company data because from a security standpoint, the same tools may apply to both types of data. In other circles, the terms “information security”, “data security”, “cybersecurity” are frequently used as well.

 — Online Searches

Finally, if you are based in the US, and you run an online search for “data protection”, you will see that the search results either provide links to “security” products (e.g. in my case, a link to McAfee Data Protection product that prevents data loss and leakage) or links to foreign laws dealing with what Americans call “privacy”, (e.g. in my case, a link to Guide to Data Protection from the UK Information Commissioner’s Office).

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