What Is Personally Identifiable Information (PII)?
Personally identifiable information (PII) is information that, when used alone or with other relevant data, can identify an individual.
PII may contain direct identifiers (e.g., passport information) that can identify a person uniquely, or quasi-identifiers (e.g., race) that can be combined with other quasi-identifiers (e.g., date of birth) to successfully recognize an individual.
- Personally identifiable information (PII) uses data to confirm an individual's identity.
- Sensitive personally identifiable information can include your full name, Social Security Number, driver’s license, financial information, and medical records.
- Non-sensitive personally identifiable information is easily accessible from public sources and can include your zip code, race, gender, and date of birth.
- Passports contain personally identifiable information.
- Social media sites may be considered non-sensitive personally identifiable information.
Understanding Personally Identifiable Information
Advancing technology platforms have changed the way businesses operate, governments legislate, and individuals relate. With digital tools like cell phones, the Internet, e-commerce, and social media, there has been an explosion in the supply of all kinds of data.
Big data, as it is called, is being collected, analyzed, and processed by businesses and shared with other companies. The wealth of information provided by big data has enabled companies to gain insight into how to better interact with customers.
However, the emergence of big data has also increased the number of data breaches and cyberattacks by entities who realize the value of this information. As a result, concerns have been raised over how companies handle the sensitive information of their consumers. Regulatory bodies are seeking new laws to protect the data of consumers, while users are looking for more anonymous ways to stay digital.
Sensitive vs. Non-Sensitive Personally Identifiable Information
Personally identifiable information (PII) can be sensitive or non-sensitive. Sensitive personal information includes legal statistics such as:
- Full name
- Social Security Number (SSN)
- Driver’s license
- Mailing address
- Credit card information
- Passport information
- Financial information
- Medical records
The above list is by no means exhaustive. Companies that share data about their clients normally use anonymization techniques to encrypt and obfuscate the PII, so it is received in a non-personally identifiable form. An insurance company that shares its clients’ information with a marketing company will mask the sensitive PII included in the data and leave only information related to the marketing company’s goal.
Non-sensitive or indirect PII is easily accessible from public sources like phonebooks, the Internet, and corporate directories. Examples of non-sensitive or indirect PII include:
- Zip code
- Date of birth
- Place of birth
The above list contains quasi-identifiers and examples of non-sensitive information that can be released to the public. This type of information cannot be used alone to determine an individual’s identity.
However, non-sensitive information, although not delicate, is linkable. This means that non-sensitive data, when used with other personal linkable information, can reveal the identity of an individual. De-anonymization and re-identification techniques tend to be successful when multiple sets of quasi-identifiers are pieced together and can be used to distinguish one person from another.
Regulating and safeguarding personally identifiable information (PII) will likely be a dominant issue for individuals, corporations, and governments in the years to come.
Safeguarding Personally Identifiable Information (PII)
Multiple data protection laws have been adopted by various countries to create guidelines for companies that gather, store, and share the personal information of clients. Some of the basic principles outlined by these laws state that some sensitive information should not be collected unless for extreme situations.
Also, regulatory guidelines stipulate that data should be deleted if no longer needed for its stated purpose, and personal information should not be shared with sources that cannot guarantee its protection.
Cybercriminals breach data systems to access PII, which is then sold to willing buyers in underground digital marketplaces. For example, in 2015, the IRS suffered a data breach leading to the theft of more than a hundred thousand taxpayers’ PII.
Using quasi-information stolen from multiple sources, the perpetrators were able to access an IRS website application by answering personal verification questions that should have been privy to the taxpayers only.
Safeguarding PII may not always be the sole responsibility of a service provider. In some cases, it may be shared with the individual.
How PII Is Stolen
Many thieves find PII of unsuspecting victims by digging through their trash for unopened mail. This can provide them with a person's name and address. In some cases, it can also reveal information about their employment, banking relationships, or even their social security numbers.
Nowadays, the Internet has become a major vector for identity theft. Phishing and social engineering attacks use a deceptive-looking website or email to trick someone into revealing key information, such as their name, bank account numbers, passwords, or social security number. It is also possible to steal this information through deceptive phone calls or SMS messages.
Tips on Protecting PII
While it is not possible to fully protect yourself, you can make yourself a smaller target by reducing the opportunities to steal your PII. Experian, one of the top three credit agencies, lists several steps that you can take to reduce your surface area.
For example, a locked mailbox or PO box makes it harder for thieves to steal your mail and removing personal identification from junk mail and other documents makes it harder for identity thieves to associate a name with an address. Also, avoid carrying more PII than you need—there's no reason to keep your social security card in your wallet.
Likewise, there are some steps you can take to prevent online identity theft. Data leaks are a major source of identity theft, so it is important to use a different, complex password for each online account. Always encrypt your important data, and use a password for each phone or device. It is also a good idea to reformat your hard drive whenever you sell or donate a computer.
Personally Identifiable Information Around the World
The definition of what comprises PII differs depending on where you live in the world. The following are the privacy regimes in specific jurisdictions:
In the United States, the government defined "personally identifiable" in 2020 as anything that can "be used to distinguish or trace an individual's identity" such as name, SSN, and biometrics information; either alone or with other identifiers such as date of birth or place of birth.
In the European Union (EU), the definition expands to include quasi-identifiers as outlined in the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) that went into effect in May 2018. The GDPR is a legal framework that sets rules for collecting and processing personal information for those residing in the EU.
Personal information is protected by the Privacy Act 1988. This law regulates the collection, storage, use, and disclosure of personal information, whether by the federal government or private entities. Later amendments regulate the use of healthcare identifiers and establish the obligations of entities that suffer from a data breach.
The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act regulates the use of personal information for commercial use. This is defined as information that on its own or combined with other data, can identify you as an individual.
Personally Identifiable Information vs. Personal Data
Personal data encompasses a broader range of contexts than PII. For instance, your IP address, device ID numbers, browser cookies, online aliases, or genetic data. Certain attributes such as religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or medical history may be classified as personal data but not personally identifiable information.
Example of Personally Identifiable Information
In early 2018, Facebook Inc. (META), now Meta, was embroiled in a major data breach. The profiles of 30 million Facebook users were collected without their consent by an outside company called Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica got its data from Facebook through a researcher who worked at the University of Cambridge. The researcher built a Facebook app that was a personality quiz. An app is a software application used on mobile devices and websites.
The app was designed to take the information from those who volunteered to give access to their data for the quiz. Unfortunately, the app collected not only the quiz takers' data but, because of a loophole in Facebook's system, was able also to collect data from the friends and family members of the quiz takers.
As a result, over 50 million Facebook users had their data exposed to Cambridge Analytica without their consent. Although Facebook banned the sale of their data, Cambridge Analytica turned around and sold the data to be used for political consulting. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, released a statement within the company's Q1-2019 earnings release:
We are focused on building out our privacy-focused vision for the future of social networking and working collaboratively to address important issues around the Internet.
The data breach not only affected Facebook users but investors as well. Facebook's profits decreased by 50% in Q1-2019 versus the same period a year earlier. The company accrued $3 billion in legal expenses and would have had an earnings per share of $1.04 higher without the expenses, stating:
We estimate that the range of loss in this matter is $3.0 billion to $5.0 billion. The matter remains unresolved, and there can be no assurance as to the timing or the terms of any final outcome.
The following day, on April 25, 2019, Meta announced it was banning personality quizzes from its platform.
Companies will undoubtedly invest in ways to harvest data, such as personally identifiable information (PII), to offer products to consumers and maximize profits. Still, they will be met with more stringent regulations in the years to come.
What Qualifies as PII?
Personally identifiable information is defined by the U.S. government as:
“Information which can be used to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity, such as their name, social security number, biometric records, etc. alone, or when combined with other personal or identifying information which is linked or linkable to a specific individual, such as date and place of birth, mother’s maiden name, etc.”
What Is Not PII?
Personal data is not classified as PII and non-personal data such as the company you work for, shared data, or anonymized data.
What Is a PII Violation?
PII violations are illegal, and often involve frauds such as identity theft. Violations may also stem from unauthorized access, use, or disclosure of PII. Failure to report a PII breach can also be a violation.
What Must You Do When Emailing PII?
Because email is not always secure, try to avoid emailing PII. If you must, use encryption or secure verification techniques.
What Laws Protect PII?
Various federal and state consumer protection laws protect PII and sanction its unauthorized use; for instance, the Federal Trade Commission Act and the Privacy Act of 1974.
The Bottom Line
Personal Identifying Information (PII) is any type of data that can be used to identify someone, from their name and address to their phone number, passport information, and social security numbers. This information is frequently a target for identity thieves, especially over the Internet. For that reason, it is essential for companies and government agencies to keep their databases secure.