What Is Personally Identifiable Information (PII)? – Everything You Need To Know

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Many people are unaware of the extent to which their personal information is collected and stored. While some of this information may seem generic or anonymous, it can actually reveal a lot about a person’s identity. This is where the concept of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) comes into play. PII refers to any information that, either on its own or when combined with other data, can be used to identify a specific individual. It is crucial for organizations and individuals to understand the implications of PII and the need to protect it.

What Is Personally Identifiable Information (PII)

PII encompasses is a wide range of information that can be used to identify an individual. This can include basic details such as a person’s full name, social security number, date of birth, address, phone number, and email address. Additionally, PII can also include more sensitive information such as financial data (bank account numbers, credit card numbers), biometric data (fingerprints, facial recognition data), medical information, and even passport or driver’s license numbers. The key aspect of PII is that it has the potential to reveal someone’s identity when combined with other data.

What Is Sensitive Personally Identifiable Information?

Sensitive Personally Identifiable Information (PII) refers to the subset of PII that is directly or almost directly linked to an individual’s identity and has the potential to cause harm if misused or disclosed without authorization. This type of information is considered sensitive due to the potential risks and consequences associated with its exposure.

Examples of sensitive PII include:

1. First and last name: This is a basic identifier that can be used to identify an individual.

2. Home address: Revealing someone’s home address can pose a risk to their personal safety and security.

3. Email address: Email addresses are often used for communication and can be linked to various online accounts, making them valuable targets for cybercriminals.

4. Telephone number: Phone numbers can be used for identity theft or unauthorized contact.

5. Passport number: A passport number is a unique identifier issued by a government and can be used for identity fraud or unauthorized travel.

6. Driver’s license number: Similar to a passport number, a driver’s license number is a unique identifier issued by a government and can be used for identity theft or fraud.

7. Social Security Number (SSN): SSNs are commonly used in the United States for identification purposes and are highly sensitive due to the potential for identity theft and financial fraud.

8. Photo of a face: Facial images can be used for biometric identification, facial recognition systems, or unauthorized access to personal accounts or facilities.

9. Credit card number: Credit card numbers are highly valuable to cybercriminals as they can be used for fraudulent transactions and financial theft.

10. Account username: Usernames associated with online accounts can be used to track an individual’s online activities and potentially gain unauthorized access to their accounts.

11. Fingerprints: Biometric data, such as fingerprints, are unique to each individual and can be used for unauthorized access or identity fraud.

12. Financial records: Detailed financial records, including bank statements, investment information, or tax records, can provide insights into an individual’s financial status and can be used for identity theft or financial fraud.

13 Medical records: Personal health information, including medical history, diagnoses, and treatments, is highly sensitive and can be used for various malicious purposes, such as insurance fraud or blackmail.

What Is Non-Sensitive PII?

Non-sensitive Personally Identifiable Information (PII) refers to information that, on its own, cannot directly reveal an individual’s identity but can potentially be linked to other data elements to establish identity. Unlike sensitive PII, non-sensitive PII requires more data elements to be combined to identify an individual.

Examples of non-sensitive PII include:

1. First or last name (if it’s common): While a common first or last name alone may not be sufficient to identify an individual, it can become more identifying when combined with additional information.

2. Mother’s maiden name: This information is often used as a security question or verification method but is not directly linked to an individual’s identity.

3. Partial address, like a country or zip code: Providing only a partial address does not reveal the exact location or identity of an individual.

4. Age range: Providing an age range, such as 35-44, does not directly identify an individual but provides a general idea of their age group.

5. Date of birth: While a date of birth alone may not be enough to identify someone, it can become more identifying when combined with other information.

6. Gender: Gender, on its own, does not directly identify an individual but can provide some general information.

7. Employer: Providing the name of an employer alone does not reveal an individual’s identity but can provide some context about their professional life.

When creating an account on a website, email addresses, chosen usernames, and account passwords are considered PII. However, they need to be linked to other information to establish an individual’s identity.

During an online purchase, various pieces of information are considered PII, including first and last name, company, shipping/billing address, email address, phone number, and credit card number. Additional information generated during the transaction, such as serial numbers of purchased items, cookies saved in the browser, and the customer’s location based on their IP address, can also be considered non-sensitive PII.

What Is non-Personally Identifiable Information?

Non-Personally Identifiable Information (Non-PII) refers to data that does not directly or indirectly identify an individual. This type of information cannot be used on its own to distinguish or trace an individual’s identity. Non-PII is often used for various purposes, such as research, analytics, and marketing, without compromising an individual’s privacy.

Examples of non-Personally Identifiable Information include:

1. Masked IP addresses: IP addresses that have been partially or fully anonymized by removing certain digits or replacing them with generic values. This prevents the identification of specific individuals based on their IP addresses.

2. Aggregated statistics: Data that has been combined and summarized from a larger group or user base, making it impossible to identify individual contributors. Aggregated statistics provide insights into trends and patterns without revealing specific personal details.

3. Anonymized data: Information that has undergone a process to remove or alter personally identifiable elements, such as encryption, data obfuscation, or removing direct identifiers. Anonymization ensures that the data cannot be linked back to an individual.

4. Cookie IDs and device IDs: Some organizations consider these identifiers as non-PII, as they are not directly linked to an individual’s identity. However, it is important to note that in certain contexts or when combined with other data, these IDs can become personally identifiable.

It is important to handle non-PII with caution and ensure that it is not combined or linked with other information to identify individuals. While non-PII does not directly reveal personal identities, privacy protection measures should still be implemented to prevent any unintended identification or misuse of the data.

Personally Identifiable Information (PII) Internationally

Variances in Terminology and Definitions:

Different countries may use varying terminology and definitions when referring to personally identifiable information (PII). While the term “PII” is commonly used in the United States, other countries may use terms like “personal data” or “personal information” to describe similar types of information.

These variances is important for organizations operating internationally as they navigate privacy laws and regulations. For example, in some countries, personal data may be defined more broadly to include not just information that directly identifies an individual, but also information that can indirectly identify them when combined with other data.

These differences in terminology and definitions can impact how organizations handle and protect personal information. It is crucial for organizations to be aware of the specific terminology and definitions used in the jurisdictions where they operate to ensure compliance with local laws and regulations.

Multiple Laws And Jurisdictions:

Privacy laws and regulations can vary not only between countries but also within a single country. In the United States, for instance, both federal and state/provincial privacy regulations exist. California, in particular, has some of the strongest state-level regulations with the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and the upcoming California Privacy Rights Act (CPRA).

Similarly, in Canada, there are federal privacy laws such as the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA), as well as provincial laws that may have additional requirements. These multiple layers of privacy regulations can present challenges for organizations operating in different jurisdictions, as they must navigate and comply with various legal frameworks.

In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a comprehensive privacy law that applies to all European Union member states. The GDPR harmonizes the rules for processing personal data across the EU and grants individuals certain rights, such as the right to access and rectify their personal data.

Other countries, such as Australia and Japan, also have their own privacy laws that govern the handling of personal information. These laws outline the responsibilities of organizations in collecting, using, and safeguarding personal data.

Definitions Of PII And Variances In Regulations:

Outside of the European Union (EU), definitions of personally identifiable information (PII) and regulations surrounding its collection, security, use, distribution, and destruction can vary widely. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) has the broadest reach, applying not only to EU member states but also to countries like Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and EU trading partners.

Countries have taken different approaches to align their regulations with the GDPR. Some have developed their own national regulations based on the GDPR, while others have implemented laws that largely mirror the GDPR. For example, the United Kingdom enacted the Data Protection Act 2018, which closely aligns with the GDPR. Despite leaving the EU, the UK still must comply with the GDPR as an external trading partner.

In Canada, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) was designed with the GDPR in mind. PIPEDA regulates the collection, use, and disclosure of personal information by private sector organizations in their commercial activities. Additionally, Canada has the Privacy Act, which governs citizens’ interactions with the federal government.

These variances in PII definitions and regulations highlight the need for organizations to understand and comply with the specific requirements of the jurisdictions in which they operate. The influence of the GDPR has led to the development and enforcement of similar policies in other countries, driving global efforts to protect personal data and privacy.

Global Influence Of The GDPR:

The GDPR’s influence extends beyond the EU, impacting organizations and countries worldwide. One of the key factors contributing to its global influence is its extraterritorial reach. Any organization that engages with EU citizens and companies, regardless of their location, must comply with the GDPR’s requirements. This has compelled companies around the world to align their data protection practices with GDPR standards.

The GDPR’s influence can be seen in the development and enforcement of privacy regulations in various countries. For example, the UK’s adoption of the GDPR through the Data Protection Act 2018 demonstrates the global impact of the regulation. Even after leaving the EU, the UK recognizes the significance of adhering to GDPR principles as an external trading partner.

Similarly, Canada’s PIPEDA reflects the influence of the GDPR. The law incorporates similar principles and protections for personal information, emphasizing the importance of aligning with global data protection standards.

The GDPR has set a high standard for data protection and privacy, prompting other countries to strengthen their own privacy laws. The regulation has raised awareness about the importance of safeguarding personal data and empowering individuals with greater control over their information. As a result, countries worldwide are taking cues from the GDPR when formulating their privacy regulations.

Overall, the GDPR’s influence has led to increased global attention on data protection and privacy. It has become a benchmark for countries and organizations aiming to enhance privacy practices and ensure the rights of individuals are respected. The regulation’s impact extends beyond the EU, shaping privacy policies and practices on a global scale.

What Is Non-Personal Data?

Non-personal data refers to information that does not allow for the identification of an individual. In the context of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), non-personal data is not subject to the same principles and protections as personal data.

The GDPR defines non-personal data as either information that does not relate to an identified or identifiable natural person, or personal data that has been anonymized in such a way that the individual is no longer identifiable.

Examples of non-personal data under the GDPR include:

1. Age range: An age range, such as 35-44, does not directly identify a specific individual. It provides general information about a group without revealing personal details.

2. Census data: Aggregated data from a census, which provides statistical information about a population, does not disclose personal information about specific individuals.

3. Aggregated statistics on product or service use: Data that combines information from multiple users or customers to generate overall statistics about product or service usage does not reveal personal details.

4. Partially or fully masked Internet Protocol (IP) addresses: An IP address is a unique identifier assigned to devices connected to a network. When an IP address is partially or fully masked, it is modified in a way that prevents the identification of the individual associated with the device.

How Does PII Differ From Personal Data?

PII and personal data are terms that are often used interchangeably, but they have some differences in their scope and legal implications.

PII, or Personally Identifiable Information, is a term commonly used in business contexts, particularly in the United States. It refers to any information that can be used to identify an individual. This can include a wide range of data, such as names, addresses, social security numbers, email addresses, phone numbers, and more. The definition and examples of PII may vary depending on the specific regulations or industry standards in place.

On the other hand, personal data is a legal term defined by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union. It encompasses a broader range of information than PII and includes any data that relates to an identified or identifiable natural person. This can include not only the traditional PII elements but also other types of data such as IP addresses, genetic data, biometric data, and more. The GDPR provides a unified set of laws and regulations governing the processing and protection of personal data across all EU member states and their trading partners.

While PII regulations in the United States can vary depending on the industry or government department, the GDPR covers all facets of information privacy and use, including medical, commercial, and personal data. The GDPR also grants individuals specific rights regarding their personal data, such as the right to be informed, right of access, right to rectification, right to erasure, right to restrict processing, right to data portability, right to object, and rights in relation to automated decision making and profiling.

Types Of PII Violations

  • Data breaches: This refers to incidents where unauthorized individuals gain access to sensitive personal information stored by an organization. It can involve the theft or unauthorized disclosure of large volumes of PII, potentially affecting a large number of individuals.
  • Mishandling of data: This includes situations where organizations fail to adequately limit access to and sharing of PII within their own departments or with third-party contractors. It can also involve the improper anonymization of data before it is shared with customers, partners, or researchers.

Examples Of PII Violations

  • Identity theft: This occurs when someone gains unauthorized access to an individual’s PII and uses it for fraudulent purposes, such as making unauthorized purchases or accessing sensitive accounts.
  • Physical breaches: PII violations can occur not only online but also in physical spaces. For example, sensitive documents may be improperly disposed of in open recycling bins, or electronic devices may be discarded or recycled without proper data wiping or destruction.

Consequences Of PII Violations

  • For individuals: PII violations can lead to financial loss, as stolen information can be used for fraudulent activities. Identity theft can also cause significant emotional distress and damage to an individual’s reputation.
  • For organizations: PII violations can result in legal and regulatory penalties, loss of customer trust, damage to the organization’s brand reputation, and financial costs associated with remediation efforts and potential lawsuits.

Preventing PII violations:

  • Robust security measures: Organizations should implement encryption, access controls, and regular security audits to protect PII from unauthorized access or disclosure.
  • Employee training: Providing comprehensive training on data privacy best practices can help employees understand their responsibilities and reduce the risk of PII violations.
  • Clear policies and procedures: Organizations should establish clear policies and procedures for handling PII, including guidelines for data sharing, retention, and disposal.
  • Individual vigilance: Individuals should be cautious about sharing their personal information and regularly monitor their accounts for any signs of unauthorized activity.


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