Personally identifiable information (PII) refers to any information that can be used to identify an individual directly or indirectly. This broad category encompasses a lot of data, including seemingly harmless details, like your name, to highly sensitive information, like your Social Security number (SSN). When connected, this wide range of data can create a detailed profile for an individual, leaving them vulnerable to identity theft, fraud, or privacy invasion.

PII includes the following information:

  • Names: A person's full name, along with any aliases, is one of the most basic forms of PII.
  • Addresses: This includes physical addresses, such as a home address, as well as workplace locations.
  • Phone numbers: Mobile and landline phone numbers are crucial for communication and are considered PII.
  • Email addresses: These are essential means of digital communication and are, therefore, considered part of PII.
  • SSNs: These are highly sensitive unique identifiers that are used for various government and financial transactions.
  • Driver's license numbers: These are issued by government authorities and are used for identification and verification.
  • Passport numbers: Passports are internationally recognized travel documents, and their numbers hold a high degree of personal significance.

PII is used to verify the identity of individuals, ensuring that only authorized users access specific resources, systems, or services. One of the most common examples of PII is your bank account username and password.

PII also facilitates communication between individuals and organizations. Your email address and phone number allow others to contact you, and many digital services and platforms leverage PII to tailor user experiences. This includes recommendations on e-commerce sites, personalized content on social media, and targeted advertising.

The sensitive nature of PII requires that ample security measures be implemented when handling such data. If you don't handle this data carefully, the following situations can occur:

  • Identity theft: With access to sufficient PII, malicious actors can impersonate individuals and engage in fraudulent activities. This can lead to financial losses, damage to personal reputation, and emotional distress for the victims.
  • Fraud: PII is a key component in many types of fraud, including credit card fraud, tax fraud, and phishing schemes. Criminals can use stolen PII to open fraudulent accounts, make unauthorized purchases, or commit various financial crimes.
  • Unauthorized access: Unauthorized access to sensitive personal data can lead to privacy breaches, resulting in exposure of personal information to the public or misuse of this information for malicious purposes.
  • Reputation and emotional harm: When PII is compromised, individuals often experience significant stress and emotional harm. They may be left to deal with the fallout of identity theft or privacy violations, including the arduous process of reclaiming their identity and restoring their reputation.

PII encompasses a wide range of sensitive information including protected health information (PHI), regulated under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), and sensitive personally identifiable information (SPII). Recognizing what constitutes PII, understanding its common use cases, and handling it securely are essential steps in safeguarding privacy, security, and personal well-being.

Additionally, consider using tools like the NIST to implement the appropriate controls for securing PII. The framework helps secure PII by promoting a risk-based approach to privacy management, integrating privacy into organizational governance, emphasizing the protection of PII throughout its lifecycle, and facilitating compliance with laws and regulations. It encourages transparency, effective communication with individuals, and the development of incident response plans to address privacy breaches promptly.