What Is PII?

5 min. read

Personally identifiable information (PII), refers to any data that can be used to identify a specific individual, either directly or indirectly. This includes information such as name, address, social security number, email address, phone number, and date of birth. PII can also include less obvious data points like IP addresses and device identifiers when they can be linked to an individual. Organizations must take precautions to secure and protect PII to maintain user privacy and comply with data protection regulations.

Personally Identifiable Information (PII) Explained

Advancements in information technology have resulted in a lucrative market for gathering and reselling PII. Because of its potential use in identity theft and financial crime, bad actors target PII. In response to mounting risks, numerous website privacy policies explicitly address PII collection. PII is also protected under legal and regulatory requirements that mandate the uses, treatment of, and security measures to protect consumers.

Legislations include the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). In cloud environments, measures such as encryption and access controls are often implemented to protect PII. A data breach involving PII can result in financial loss, damage to reputation, and even legal liability in some cases.

So what exactly is PII?

In the United States, the National Institute of Standards and Technology Special Publication 800-122 defines PII, or personally identifiable information, as "any information about an individual maintained by an agency, including any information that can be used to distinguish or trace an individual's identity, such as name, social security number, date and place of birth, mother's maiden name, or biometric records; and (2) any other information that is linked or linkable to an individual, such as medical, educational, financial, and employment information." 

Why Is PII Important?

Securing PII is of highest priority due to its potential impact on individuals' privacy, safety, and financial well-being. Unauthorized access to PII can lead to identity theft, fraud, and reputational damage, putting individuals at significant risk. Additionally, breaches involving PII can result in substantial financial losses for businesses, legal penalties, and damage to their reputation.

Organizations are obligated to protect PII under various data protection regulations, such as GDPR and HIPAA, which mandate stringent security measures to safeguard sensitive personal information. By securing PII, organizations not only uphold their ethical responsibility toward user privacy but also maintain compliance with regulatory requirements, mitigate financial and legal risks, and preserve trust with customers and stakeholders.

PII Worldwide

PII laws and regulations aim to protect individuals' privacy by ensuring that their personal information is securely collected, processed, stored, and shared. These laws vary across countries and regions, but the core principles remain similar.

European Union: General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

GDPR, implemented in 2018, is the most comprehensive privacy legislation globally, applicable to all EU member countries. It regulates PII processing, provides data subjects with rights such as access, rectification, and erasure, and enforces strict penalties for non-compliance. Organizations that process data of EU residents must comply with GDPR, regardless of their location.

United States: No single federal PII law

The US lacks a comprehensive federal privacy law. Instead, it has a sectoral approach, with laws like HIPAA for healthcare, COPPA (Children's Online Privacy Protection Act) for children's data, and GLBA (Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act) for financial institutions. Additionally, some states have enacted their own privacy laws, such as the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).

Canada: Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA)

PIPEDA is a federal privacy law that governs the collection, use, and disclosure of personal information in the course of commercial activities. It requires organizations to obtain consent for data collection and processing, implement security measures, and provide individuals access to their data.

Australia: Privacy Act 1988 and Australian Privacy Principles (APPs)

The Privacy Act 1988 governs the protection of personal information in Australia. The APPs, which are part of the act, set out 13 principles that regulate the handling of personal information by organizations, including collection, use, disclosure, security, and individual access.

Brazil: General Data Protection Law (LGPD)

LGPD, enacted in 2020, is Brazil's comprehensive privacy legislation. It establishes principles, rights, and obligations for the processing of personal data. Similar to GDPR, LGPD applies to any organization processing the data of individuals located in Brazil, regardless of the organization's location.

China: Personal Information Protection Law (PIPL)

China's PIPL, effective from November 2021, is a comprehensive data protection law that governs the collection, use, processing, and storage of personal information. It emphasizes consent, data minimization, and cross-border data transfer restrictions, among other provisions.

India: Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB)

PDPB, currently a draft bill, aims to regulate the processing of personal data in India. It proposes principles such as purpose and storage limitation, data localization, and individual rights like access and correction.

These are just a few examples of PII laws and regulations worldwide. As data privacy concerns continue to grow, we see more countries adopting privacy laws to protect the rights of individuals'.

Personal Data Vs. PII

Both personal data and PII share the common goal of ensuring the protection and privacy of individuals' information. That said, while the concepts of personal data and PII overlap, they differ legislatively.

Personal data is a broader category, one that encompasses all information relating to an identified or identifiable individual. The European Union and other jurisdictions outside the United States often use the term personal data. The GDPR is a prime example of legislation that provides a comprehensive framework for protecting personal data, aligning data protection rules across EU member states.

Again, personal data legislation covers a wide range of data types — identifiers, contact information, demographic data, preferences, and online behavior. Personal data can be either directly identifying or indirectly identifiable when combined with other data points.

Nuances of PII

PII is a subset of personal data that focuses on information that can be used to directly or indirectly identify a specific individual. In the United States, privacy laws and data protection regulations commonly use the term PII. Different states and sectors have varying definitions of PII, and the scope of protection may differ depending on the context and specific regulations. Examples of U.S. legislation addressing PII include HIPAA and the CCPA.

To clearly distinguish these two terms, think of personal data as information “related to” identifiable individuals. When we say personal data covers a range of information "related to" identifiable individuals, we emphasize that personal data encompasses any information associated with an identified or identifiable person. This concept signifies a broad scope of data types that could be connected to an individual in some way, including seemingly anonymous data points (i.e., a product preference) that, when combined with other data points, become indirectly identifiable information.

PII, on the other hand, "focuses on" data with a more explicit connection to an individual's identity. It has a narrower scope, concentrating on data that can pinpoint or trace back to a particular person, either directly or indirectly.

Regulations & Data Classification

Legislations taking a non-prescriptive, principles-based approach to data protection — as the GDPR does — give rise to the term personal data. Information that wouldn’t necessarily qualify as PII under HIPAA, for example, may qualify as personal data within the scope of the GDPR.


PHI is a specific type of PII that relates to an individual's physical or mental health, healthcare services, or payment for healthcare services. PHI includes medical records, test results, insurance information, and billing data.

In the United States, PHI is protected under HIPAA, which governs the collection, use, and disclosure of PHI by covered entities (healthcare providers, health plans, and healthcare clearinghouses) and their business associates. Infractions of HIPAA regulations are severe, as required to protect information of a sensitive nature and prevent the fallout of harm from unauthorized access or disclosure of PHI.

PII Security Best Practices

Observing PII security best practices help organizations to protect sensitive data, maintain trust with their customers, and comply with privacy regulations worldwide.

Data Minimization

Collect and store only the necessary PII for a specific purpose. Limiting the amount of data held reduces the risk of unauthorized access or misuse.

Access Control

Implement role-based access controls (RBAC) to limit employees' access to PII based on their job responsibilities. Use strong authentication methods, such as multifactor authentication (MFA), to ensure only authorized personnel can access sensitive data.


Use encryption, both at rest and in transit, to protect PII from unauthorized access. Employ strong encryption algorithms and manage encryption keys securely.

Data Classification

Categorize PII based on sensitivity levels and apply appropriate security controls accordingly. Data classification helps prioritize the protection of critical data and maintain regulatory compliance.

Data Retention and Disposal

Establish a data retention policy that defines how long PII is stored and when it should be deleted or anonymized. Securely dispose of PII when it's no longer needed, using methods like secure deletion or physical destruction.

Regular Audits and Assessments

Conduct periodic audits and risk assessments to identify potential vulnerabilities and ensure compliance with privacy regulations. Implement continuous monitoring to detect and respond to security incidents promptly.

Employee Training

Provide regular training to employees on data protection, privacy regulations, and cybersecurity. Educate them on the importance of PII security and their role in safeguarding sensitive information.

Incident Response Plan

Develop a robust incident response plan that outlines the steps to take in case of a data breach or security incident. This plan should include communication protocols, identification and containment procedures, and recovery strategies.

Vendor Management

Assess and monitor third-party vendors that handle PII to ensure they follow security best practices and comply with relevant regulations. Establish contractual agreements that outline data protection responsibilities.

Privacy by Design

Integrate privacy considerations into the development lifecycle of products, services, and applications. This approach helps proactively address potential privacy risks and ensures that PII protection is a core component of the design process.


PII encompasses any data that can be used to directly or indirectly identify a specific individual. It includes a wide range of information, such as names, addresses, social security numbers, email addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, and even IP addresses or device identifiers when they can be linked to an individual. Organizations must protect and secure PII to maintain user privacy and comply with data protection regulations.
An example of PII is a social security number, which is a unique identifier assigned to individuals in the United States for various purposes, including taxation and employment. Social security numbers can be used to directly identify an individual and are considered sensitive PII due to the potential risks associated with unauthorized disclosure, such as identity theft or fraud.
Personal information that does not qualify as PII generally includes data that, in isolation, cannot be used to directly or indirectly identify an individual. Examples of such non-PII information can include anonymized or aggregated data, generic statistics, and certain types of demographic data that lack sufficient detail to be linked to a specific person. For instance, anonymized search queries, website usage data that cannot be traced back to a user, or broad demographic information like age ranges or general geographic locations (e.g., city or state) may be considered non-PII personal information when they cannot be combined with other data to identify an individual.

Three types of personal information include:

  • Identifying information: This category consists of data that can directly identify an individual, such as names, social security numbers, passport numbers, and driver's license numbers.
  • Quasi-identifying information: This type of data indirectly identifies individuals when combined with other information. Examples include IP addresses, device identifiers, and geolocation data.
  • Sensitive information: This category covers data that, if disclosed, could lead to significant harm or discrimination against an individual. Sensitive information may include financial data, health records, biometric data, and information related to racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation.

Identifying refers to the process or act of recognizing and distinguishing a specific individual or entity based on unique characteristics or attributes. In the context of data, identifying information directly points to an individual, such as a name, social security number, or passport number.

Identifiable refers to the potential for data to be associated with a specific individual, either directly or indirectly. Identifiable data may not immediately reveal an individual's identity, but when combined with other information, it can be used to pinpoint the person. Examples of identifiable data include IP addresses, device identifiers, and geolocation data. The distinction between identifying and identifiable is crucial in data protection and privacy, as it influences how organizations handle, process, and secure personal information.

Information that cannot be directly or indirectly linked to an individual is not considered PII. This includes anonymized, aggregated, or de-identified data that has been stripped of any identifiable elements. Examples of non-PII data include general demographic information, such as age range, gender, and geographic location, as well as statistical data and anonymous survey results. Non-PII data can be shared and used more freely, as it does not pose a risk to individual privacy.
PII (Personally Identifiable Information) encompasses a wide range of data that can be used to identify individuals, while PHI (Protected Health Information) specifically refers to health-related information. PII that is not considered PHI includes data points like names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses, which are not directly related to an individual's health status or healthcare. Conversely, PHI consists of medical records, diagnoses, treatment plans, insurance information, and other health-related data that must be protected under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the United States.
Privacy policies are legally binding documents that outline how an organization collects, processes, stores, shares, and protects personal data. These policies inform users about the types of data collected, the purpose of data collection, data retention periods, and the rights of data subjects. Privacy policies also detail the organization's compliance with data protection laws and regulations, such as GDPR, CCPA, and HIPAA. By providing transparency and establishing user trust, privacy policies play a critical role in ensuring responsible data management practices and legal compliance.

Access control models are frameworks that define how permissions are granted and managed within a system, determining who can access specific resources. They guide the development and implementation of access control policies. Common models include:

  • Discretionary access control (DAC), where resource owners decide who can access their resources
  • Mandatory access control (MAC), where a central authority regulates access rights based on clearances and classifications
  • Role-based access control (RBAC), where permissions are granted according to roles within an organization
  • Attribute-based access control (ABAC), where access is granted based on a combination of user attributes, resource attributes, and environmental factors