Sensitive Personally Identifiable Information

What is Sensitive Personally Identifiable Information?

Personally identifiable information (PII) is any piece of information that can be used to identify a person directly or indirectly. The concept of PII takes on a heightened significance when you consider its more sensitive subset, sensitive personally identifiable information (SPII).

SPII represents a selection of data elements that, when mishandled or exposed, can lead to severe consequences, such as financial loss, phishing, and social engineering attacks. This subset warrants enhanced protection due to its potential for significant harm if misused.

SPII includes the following:

  • Biometric data includes information such as fingerprints and retina scans, which are unique to each individual. Biometric data is often used for secure access and authentication.
  • Financial information includes credit card numbers and bank account details. Unauthorized access to this information can lead to financial loss and fraud.
  • Medical information includes health records, medical history, and data related to an individual's physical or mental health. This information is also considered protected health information (PHI) under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). Unauthorized access or exposure can lead to medical identity theft and breaches of personal health information.
  • Social Security numbers (SSNs) are classified as both PII and SPII data; however, SSNs are considered a prime example of SPII due to the potential for identity theft and financial fraud when misused.

SPII is commonly used in contexts where a higher level of security is required, such as processing financial transactions, accessing healthcare records, and accessing secure facilities. Enhanced security measures, like encryption and multifactor authentication (MFA), are often employed in these cases.

For example, medical professionals and healthcare institutions typically require access to patients' SPII to provide appropriate care and treatment. Additionally, strict privacy regulations, like GDPR, CCPA, and CPRA mandate robust security measures for medical information. In high-security environments, such as government facilities or research institutions, biometric data like fingerprints or retina scans may be used to control access.

If SPII information isn't handled carefully, the following situations can occur:

  • Financial loss: Unauthorized access to financial SPII, such as credit card numbers or bank account details, can result in significant financial losses. This can include fraudulent charges, drained bank accounts, and compromised credit scores.
  • Medical identity theft: The theft of medical SPII can lead to incorrect diagnoses, improper treatments, and fraudulent medical bills. It can also have long-term consequences for an individual's health and well-being.
  • Breaches of personal privacy: Unauthorized access to SPII can lead to a breach in the privacy and security of an individual. This can result in identity theft and harassment.

SPII represents a subset of PII that, if mishandled, can have profound consequences for individuals and organizations. Recognizing the elements that fall under SPII, understanding its common use cases, and appreciating the necessity of its protection are essential to safeguarding privacy, security, and personal well-being.