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2024 Essential Guide: What is Personally Identifiable Information (PII)


As the digital landscape evolves, the importance of understanding Personally Identifiable Information (PII), also known as personal identifying information, has never been greater. This comprehensive article looks at the nuances of PII, offering clarity for everyone from business owners to everyday internet users. Understanding PII is fundamental in our increasingly digital world. By knowing what constitutes PII, how it's protected, and the laws surrounding it, individuals can better safeguard their personal data while businesses can ensure compliance and protect their customers' privacy.


What is Personally Identifiable Information?

The PII definition, or the definition of personally identifiable information, encompasses a broad range of data that can be used alone or in combination with other information to identify, contact, or locate an individual. This includes not only direct identifiers like social security numbers, passport numbers, and driver's license details, but also less obvious data such as email addresses, phone numbers, login IDs, and even digital images. 

In today's digital landscape, even data like IP addresses and browsing histories can be considered PII given their potential to be linked back to an individual with sufficient auxiliary information.

The protection of PII is crucial in safeguarding individual privacy and preventing identity theft, financial fraud, and other personal risks. For organizations, mishandling PII can lead to significant legal and reputational consequences. Therefore, understanding what constitutes PII and implementing robust protection strategies, including technological solutions like encryption and policy-based approaches like privacy policies and data handling procedures, is essential in the digital age. As technology and data usage evolve, so does the importance of PII and the imperative to secure it.

What is Personal Information?

Personal information covers a wide range of data connected to a person. It's not just about information that can directly identify someone, such as their name or address, but also includes details that could point to who they are when combined with other bits of information. This could be anything from the websites they visit, their shopping habits, or where they work. Even small bits of information can add up to reveal a lot about a person, which is why keeping this information, often referred to as personal information PII, safe is really important.

In legal and regulatory areas, personal information is taken very seriously. Privacy laws around the world focus on this kind of information to make sure it's handled carefully. These laws understand that any information that can be linked to a person, whether direct or indirect, needs to be managed with care. Organizations that deal with personal information have to follow strict rules to protect it. They must ensurethat a person's information isn't used wrongly or given out without permission. This careful approach to handling personal information shows the importance of keeping people's privacy and personal details safe and secure.

What is the Difference Between Personally Identifiable Information and Personal Data?

Though not every legislation is the same, and the scope of personally identifiable information protected by state or country may differ, PII, or personally identifiable information, and personal data are different mainly in how much information they cover. PII is all about the specific details that can point directly to who a person is. This includes things like someone's name, their ID number, or their email address, which are clear, unique details that can identify a person straight away. 

In contrast, personal data is a broader term, especially in the context of GDPR, as it includes  all sorts of information that can be connected to a person, even remotely or in combination with other data. It includes not just the direct identifiers like in PII, but also a lot of other information related to a person. For example, a combination of significant criteria, such as occupation, place of residence, and information on marriage status, might not tell you right away who someone is, but when you put it together with other bits of data, it can give you a pretty good picture of a person. So, personal data is a wider category that covers more than just the obvious identifying details. It's about all sorts of information that can be connected to a person in some way.

What is Sensitive PII?

Sensitive PII, or Sensitive Personally Identifiable Information, refers to a particular kind of personal information that holds a greater risk of causing harm if it's mishandled or exposed. This category includes data that is more personal and confidential, such as biometric details, medical records, financial information, and even a person's racial or ethnic background. The sensitivity of this information lies in its potential to affect an individual's privacy and security profoundly.

For instance, if sensitive PII like health records or financial details fall into the wrong hands, it could lead to serious consequences such as identity theft, financial fraud, or discrimination.

The protection of sensitive PII is of great importance, both for individuals and organizations handling such data. Unauthorized access, loss, or disclosure of this type of information can not only lead to direct harm to individuals, such as emotional distress, financial loss, or damage to reputation, but also result in legal repercussions for organizations responsible for safeguarding it. For this reason, sensitive PII is often subject to stricter handling and processing protocols compared to other types of personal information. Organizations are required to implement enhanced security measures, such as encryption and access controls, and are also obligated to comply with specific regulatory requirements when dealing with sensitive PII, ensuring the highest level of confidentiality and integrity of this information.

What is anonymized information or anonymized data?

Anonymized information or data is a category of data that, on its own, does not directly reveal an individual's identity. This type of information includes generalized or aggregated data that might relate to user behavior, preferences, or demographic information that is not specific to one person. To fall under this category, data should be altered so that an individual can no longer be identified directly or indirectly by the data controller or in collaboration with other parties. When properly anonymized, PII or personal data, would be excluded from the scope of data protection laws, as most data protection laws would state that they would not cover anonymized information. 

Examples of anonymized information  might be the number of visitors to a website, the general age ranges of a group of users, or statistical data about how a group of people use a service. This kind of information is typically used for analysis, research, or marketing purposes where individual identification is not required or intended. 

However, the distinction between anonymized data and PII is not always clear-cut, especially with the advancements in data analytics and machine learning. Techniques like data mining and pattern recognition can sometimes piece together anonymized data  in a way that could potentially identify individuals. For example, combining data  such as location data, browsing habits, and device information could inadvertently lead to the identification of an individual. In cases when such reverse engineering is possible, the data cannot be called properly anonymized and falls under the category of pseudonymized data instead. Organizations must consider the possibility of data  becoming identifiable through aggregation or in combination with other data and take appropriate measures to protect user privacy, applying data minimization and anonymization principles to safeguard against unintended identification. Nevertheless, storing and transferring pseudonymized PII is a more secure and privacy friendly way.

What are the Most Common Examples of Personally Identifiable Information?

Among the most common examples of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) are those pieces of data that can be directly linked to an individual's identity, offering a clear means of recognizing or contacting them. These include the basic yet vital details like full names, which provide immediate identification, and home addresses, which offer specific location information.

Email addresses, serving as a direct line of communication, are also a key form of PII, as are social security numbers, which are unique to each individual and often used for verification purposes. Passport numbers and driver's license numbers are other classic examples, being government-issued identifiers. 

Financially-related PII, such as credit card numbers, are particularly sensitive due to their direct link to financial resources and potential for misuse. Date of birth is another common form of PII, often used in combination with other data for identification purposes. 

Telephone numbers, while seemingly basic, can provide a direct means of contacting an individual, and log-in details, including usernames and passwords, are crucial as they provide access to personal accounts and potentially a wealth of other personal information. 

Each of these types of PII, while simple in nature, plays a significant role in personal identification and security, and their protection is therefore paramount in safeguarding an individual's privacy and preventing identity theft and fraud.


How to Protect Personally Identifiable Information?

Protecting Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is essential in today's digital era, both for individuals and organizations. 

For individuals, it starts with practicing good digital hygiene. This includes using strong, unique passwords for different accounts and being cautious about the information shared online, especially on social media. Regularly updating software and using reputable antivirus and anti-malware programs can also guard against hacking attempts. For added security, individuals should enable two-factor authentication wherever available, as it provides an additional layer of defense against unauthorized access. It's also important to be vigilant about phishing scams and to understand the common tactics used by scammers to steal personal information.

For organizations, protecting PII is a multifaceted process that involves both technical and organizational measures. Implementing robust cybersecurity measures like encryption is fundamental. Encryption helps in protecting data integrity and confidentiality by converting sensitive information into a code to prevent unauthorized access. Regular security audits are crucial in identifying and mitigating vulnerabilities in the IT infrastructure. Moreover, educating employees about the importance of data protection and the best practices for handling PII is critical, as human error often leads to data breaches. This education should include recognizing phishing attempts, understanding the importance of not sharing sensitive information unnecessarily, and following organizational protocols for data handling. Additionally, organizations should establish strong data governance policies that define how PII should be collected, used, stored, and disposed of, ensuring compliance with relevant data protection laws. These policies should be regularly reviewed and updated in response to emerging threats and changing regulatory requirements. By combining these technical and organizational approaches, both individuals and organizations can significantly enhance the protection of PII, safeguarding it from unauthorized access and potential misuse.

In short, here’s what individuals and organizations can do to protect PII:

  • Individuals:
    • Use strong, unique passwords for different accounts.
    • Be cautious about the information shared online, especially on social media.
    • Regularly update software and use reputable antivirus and anti-malware programs.
    • Enable two-factor authentication for an additional security layer.
    • Stay vigilant about phishing scams and familiarize yourself with common tactics used by scammers.


  • Organizations:
    • Implement robust cybersecurity measures, such as encryption, to protect data integrity and confidentiality.
    • Conduct regular security audits to identify and mitigate vulnerabilities.
    • Educate employees about data protection best practices and the importance of handling PII responsibly.
    • Train staff to recognize phishing attempts and avoid sharing sensitive information unnecessarily.
    • Establish and regularly update strong data governance policies, outlining protocols for collecting, using, storing, and disposing of PII.
    • Ensure compliance with relevant data protection laws and adapt policies to emerging threats and regulatory changes.


Personally Identifiable Information and Web Cookies

Web cookies, small bits of data that websites store on your device when you browse the internet, are useful for things like remembering your login details or what you put in a shopping cart. However, cookies can also track more personal information like your browsing history or what you like to look at online, which can become a privacy concern. This is because the information can be used for things like targeted ads, and sometimes people don't know just how much data is being gathered about them.

There's a lot of focus now on how these web cookies handle your personal information. Laws in many places require websites to ask for your permission before they use cookies that collect your personal details. Websites should also be clear about what kind of cookies they're using and what information they're collecting. For users, this means you often get to choose whether or not to allow these cookies. And for businesses or website owners, they have to follow these privacy laws. They need to be careful about how they use cookies, making sure they don't collect too much personal information and keeping any information they do collect safe.

We have provided a guide to understanding cookies in a two part series which covers details such as what cookies are and how web cookies work. In addition to this, as mentioned earlier, there are data privacy laws, such as the CCPA - CPRA in California, which have certain requirements related to a business’ use of cookies and what a compliant cookie policy should look like. To help you understand the impact of CCPA and CPRA on your website’s cookie policy, you can read our informative blog post on the topic. 


Is Personally Identifiable Information Protected by Privacy Laws?

PII is safeguarded by a multitude of privacy laws at various levels, including international, federal, and state regulations. These laws are designed to provide a framework for data protection, ensuring that individuals' personal data is handled responsibly and securely. For example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in Europe is one of the most comprehensive data protection laws. It gives individuals control over their personal data, including the right to access, correct, and even erase their data under certain circumstances. Similarly, in the United States, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) grants California residents similar rights over their personal data, such as the right to know what personal information is being collected about them and to whom it is being sold. For the healthcare sector, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) sets strict standards for protecting sensitive patient data in the US. These laws not only empower individuals with rights over their data but also place obligations on organizations that process PII, requiring them to implement appropriate security measures and procedures.

In the event of non-compliance or data breaches, these laws also stipulate penalties, which can be substantial. They act as a deterrent, encouraging organizations to prioritize data protection. The GDPR, for example, can impose fines of up to 4% of a company's annual global turnover or €20 million (whichever is greater) for serious infringements. The CCPA allows for penalties for each violation and even provides the right for consumers to sue companies in the event of a data breach under certain conditions. This emphasis on accountability and the potential for significant financial and reputational damage drives organizations to be more vigilant in their handling of PII. These privacy laws highlight the global recognition of the importance of personal data protection and represent a collective effort to safeguard individuals' privacy rights in an increasingly digital world.


What are Some Examples of Personally Identifiable Information and Personal Information?

PII encompasses a range of data that can directly lead to the identification of an individual. A classic example of PII is the combination of someone's full name with their national identification number, such as a Social Security number in the United States. This pairing provides a unique identifier that can pinpoint an individual's identity. Other examples include a person's passport number, driver's license number, or a specific physical address. In a more technology-driven context, PII can also include digital identifiers like an email address, phone number, or even login details for online services. These elements, individually or combined, are capable of revealing a person's identity with certainty and are therefore treated with heightened sensitivity in terms of privacy and security.

On the other hand, personal information can be broader and may not directly identify an individual. For example, details about a person's online purchasing behavior, such as the types of products they frequently buy or the websites they shop on, fall under the definition of personal information. Similarly, a user's internet browsing history, which could indicate their interests, preferences, or even the general location they are accessing the internet from, is considered personal information. While this type of data may not immediately give away someone's identity, it can provide insights into their habits, preferences, and lifestyle.


Personally Identifiable Information and the GDPR

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), implemented in the European Union, sets a global benchmark for data privacy and security, particularly in its handling of Personally Identifiable Information (PII). This comprehensive regulation requires organizations, irrespective of their location, to protect the personal data of EU citizens, especially when these transactions occur within EU member states. The GDPR's approach to PII is expansive, encompassing a wide range of data from basic identity information, like names and addresses, to more sensitive data, including health information, racial or ethnic origin, and political opinions.

One of the key aspects of GDPR is its emphasis on consent; organizations must obtain clear and explicit permission from individuals before collecting, processing, or storing their personal data. Additionally, the GDPR grants individuals several rights regarding their data, including the right to access, correct, and delete their personal data, and the right to object to its processing under certain circumstances.

Under the GDPR, organizations face stringent obligations regarding the handling of PII. They are required to implement appropriate technical and organizational measures to ensure a high level of security and to protect data against unauthorized or unlawful processing, accidental loss, destruction, or damage. In the case of a data breach, GDPR mandates prompt notification to the relevant authorities and, in certain cases, to the affected individuals. Non-compliance with GDPR can lead to hefty fines, making it imperative for organizations to align their data protection strategies with GDPR requirements. This regulation not only strengthens the protection of personal data within the EU but also influences global data protection practices, setting a precedent for how PII should be treated in an increasingly data-driven world.


Personally Identifiable Information and the CCPA - CPRA

The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), also known as the CPRA, is a significant piece of legislation in the United States that empowers residents of California with more control over their personal information, specifically addressing how businesses handle their Personally Identifiable Information (PII). The law aims to enhance privacy rights and consumer protection, reflecting a growing concern over personal data in the digital age. Under the CCPA, Californians have the right to know what personal information is being collected about them by businesses, the purpose of its collection and use, and whether and to whom it is being sold or disclosed.

They can also request that businesses delete their personal information, with some exceptions, and opt-out of the sale of their personal information. The CCPA's broad definition of personal information includes not only traditional PII such as names and social security numbers but also geolocation data, biometric information, internet activity, and even inferences drawn from other personal information that could create a profile about preferences, behavior, and attitudes.

For businesses, the CCPA mandates transparency in data practices and requires them to facilitate these rights through easily accessible means, like a “Do Not Sell or Share My Personal Information” link on their websites. Businesses are also prohibited from discriminating against consumers who exercise their CCPA rights. This includes not denying goods or services, charging different prices, or providing a different level or quality of goods or services. The CCPA is particularly significant as it represents one of the most comprehensive data privacy laws in the U.S. and serves as a model for other states and potentially federal legislation. The act emphasizes the importance of protecting PII in the digital economy and highlights the growing trend towards greater consumer control over personal data.


What is a PII breach?

A PII breach is an unauthorized disclosure, or loss of personally identifiable information, which may lead to unauthorized access or misuse. This type of violation happens when the measures put in place to protect personal information are either insufficient, bypassed, or fail. It can take many forms, including but not limited to, unauthorized access to databases containing PII, improper disposal of documents with personal details, or even unintentional sharing of such information through human error or as a consequence of a phishing attack. The consequences of a PII breach  can be severe, ranging from identity theft, where an individual's personal information is used by someone else to commit fraud or other crimes, to financial fraud, which can lead to significant financial loss for the individuals whose PII was compromised. Additionally, data breach  can result in lasting damage to an individual's reputation, stress, and the loss of trust in organizations responsible for protecting their data.

The impact of a breach is not just limited to the individuals whose information has been compromised. For organizations, a breach involving PII can have legal, financial, and reputational repercussions. Depending on the jurisdiction and the nature of the violation, companies may face hefty fines, legal actions, and a loss of consumers and clients' trust. The aftermath often includes the necessity for comprehensive damage control measures, such as notifying affected parties, providing credit monitoring services, and undertaking an internal investigation to understand and rectify the cause of the breach. Moreover, such incidents often lead organizations to reevaluate and strengthen their data protection policies and systems to prevent future violations. In an era where data is a valuable asset, the importance of safeguarding PII cannot be overstated, and a violation highlights the ongoing challenges and responsibilities faced by organizations in the digital age.


What are the Penalties for Violations?

The penalties for PII violations under various well-known data privacy laws around the world can be significant, reflecting the increasing emphasis on data protection and privacy. Under the EU's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), organizations can face fines of up to 4% of their annual global turnover or €20 million (whichever is greater) for severe breaches. In the United States, while there is no federal law equivalent to GDPR, sector-specific laws like HIPAA can impose fines up to $1.5 million per year for violations involving medical information. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), one of the most stringent state laws in the U.S., allows for civil penalties of up to $7500 per intentional violation and $2500 per unintentional violation, alongside the provision for consumers to directly sue companies for breaches.

In other regions, such as Asia-Pacific, countries are rapidly strengthening their data protection frameworks, with laws like the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) in Singapore imposing fines up to SGD $1 million. These penalties underline the global movement towards stricter data privacy and the importance of compliance in an interconnected digital world.

Here are  a few examples of penalties under various data protection laws around the world, though as the number of countries with penalties for mishandling of PII grows, it is always worth verifying if your business is subject to any additional state or country laws: 

  • GDPR (EU):
    • Fines up to 4% of annual global turnover or €20 million for severe breaches.
    • Includes violations like insufficient customer consent or breaching Privacy by Design principles.
  • HIPAA (U.S.):
    • Up to $1.5 million per year in fines for violations involving medical information.
  • CCPA - CPRA (California, U.S.):
    • Civil penalties up to $7,500 per intentional violation.
    • Up to $2,500 per unintentional violation.
    • Consumers can sue companies directly for breaches.
  • PDPA (Singapore):
    • Fines up to SGD $1 million for non-compliance.


How can Clym help? 

Clym believes in striking a balance between legal compliance and business needs, which is why we offer businesses the following:

  • a revolutionary all-in-one platform, with one interface, and one price, combining Privacy and Accessibility compliance with global regulations;
  • seamless integration into your website;
  • adaptability to your users’ location and applicable regulation;
  • custom branding; 
  • one user-friendly interface for all your users’ compliance needs; 
  • ready made compliance with 30+ data privacy regulations;
  • 6 pre-configured accessibility profiles, as well as 25+ display adjustments that allow visitors to customize their individual experience. 

You can convince yourself and see Clym in action by booking a demo or reaching out to us to discuss your specific needs today. 


FAQs about Personally Identifiable Information (PII)

What is Personally Identifiable Information (PII)?

PII includes data that can identify, contact, or locate an individual either alone or combined with other information. Examples range from names and social security numbers to email addresses and browsing histories. It's distinct from other personal data due to its direct link to individual identities.

How is Personally Identifiable Information protected under privacy laws?

PII is protected under laws like GDPR in Europe and CCPA in California, which mandate data protection and provide rights to individuals for access, correction, and deletion of their personal data.

What constitutes sensitive PII and why is it important?

Sensitive PII includes data like medical records, biometric data, and financial information. It's important due to its potential to cause harm if mishandled, leading to issues like identity theft or discrimination.

What are the common examples of PII and how are they used?

Common examples of PII include full names, addresses, email addresses, and social security numbers. They're used in various contexts for identification, verification, and personalization of services.

What measures can individuals and organizations take to protect PII?

Individuals can use strong passwords and be cautious online, while organizations should implement encryption, conduct regular security audits, and educate employees about data protection.