PII, PI and Sensitive Data: Types, Differences and Privacy Risks
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TL;DR

This article explores the primary types of sensitive data and how to distinguish between them. It also delves into the risks each carries, the best practices for keeping this information safe and the technological advancements and trends impacting data security. Safeguarding sensitive data in business is crucial to maintaining trust among customers and stakeholders and preventing reputational damage. Having a deep understanding of the key frameworks and regulations that make this possible empowers you to remain compliant and stay ahead of potential threats.

Introduction

Businesses all over the world and across industries are entrusted with copious amounts of information from their customers every minute. Some of it, known as Personally Identifiable Information (PII), needs particular care and attention because of its sensitive nature.

This type of sensitive data, which can range from the obvious to seemingly innocuous details, can become an effective instrument to single out specific individuals. That’s why, in the wrong hands, it can wreak havoc for your clients and your organisation. 

Data breaches are unfortunately becoming more common by the minute, with cybercriminals constantly developing new methods to exploit vulnerabilities in systems and networks. About 52% of data breaches involve some form of customer PII, according to a 2023 IBM report.

This percentage has grown exponentially over the years, and it’s notably cost companies just like yours millions of dollars in legal penalties and lost customers. The good news is that there are certain measures you can take to minimise the risk of a PII breach.

Here’s what you should know.

Key Takeaways

  1. Differentiating sensitive and non-sensitive PII is key to implementing effective data protection measures.
  2. A PII breach can result in identity theft, financial loss and reputational damage for your business.
  3. Data minimisation, access controls, encryption, regular audits and employee training are essential to safeguarding PII.
  4. Regulations like GDPR, HIPAA, and CCPA outline the rules for maintaining data security and protecting sensitive information.
  5. Monitoring emerging trends in PII protection, such as advancements in Blockchain and AI, can help you stay ahead of evolving threats.

Overview of PII: What Is Personally Identifiable Information?

Personal Information (PI) is more accessible than ever, which makes it all the more vulnerable. Examples of personal information include any data related to an individual, whether it is their hair colour, their favourite food, or what they prefer to do for fun on a Friday night.

However, within the broader category of PI, you can find more specific datasets known as Personally Identifiable Information — or PII, for short. These consist of narrowed-down pieces of data you can trace back to certain individuals, potentially revealing their identity and compromising their privacy and security when managed incorrectly.

NIST's definition of Personally Identifiable Information is: "Any representation of information that permits the identity of an individual to whom the information applies to be reasonably inferred by either direct or indirect means."

Beyond names and addresses, PII may encompass: 

  • Birth Dates
  • Contact information
  • Social Security Numbers (SSN) or National Insurance Numbers (UK)
  • Medical records
  • Financial account details

It’s important to note that not all PII is created equal and the level of sensitivity associated with it can vary based on several factors. In a nutshell, you can classify this type of information into two categories: non-sensitive and sensitive.

The former includes details that, while important to protect, may not pose a significant risk if compromised. On the other hand, the latter includes information that, if exposed, could have severe consequences for your customers.

Data can become more sensitive when it's linked or linkable. This refers to situations where seemingly irrelevant PII, in combination with other data sources, helps single out a specific person. A good example of this could be if a customer’s name and postcode, combined with their purchase history at your company, help attackers build a detailed profile of their target.

For more details on Data Classification, check out this article.

Types of PII

As stated above, Personally Identifiable Information comes in many shapes and levels of sensitivity. The possible repercussions of data exposure vary depending on the proximity of the information to the individual it represents. 

Understanding the different categories of PII is compulsory, especially when planning effective data protection and risk mitigation strategies. The three main types of PII are:

Non-Sensitive PII

This category includes information that, on its own, may not directly lead to any particular individuals. Examples include:

  • Names
  • Email addresses
  • Birthdates
  • Employer

For example, a random email address with no user linked to it might not be a cause for concern. Yet, a mailing list containing thousands of names and email addresses may catch the interest of spammers and identity thieves. 

Pieced together, these identifiers can help to form a more complete picture of who a person is. In other words, combining two or more non-sensitive data points can compromise a customer’s security.

Sensitive PII

This data type is directly linked to an individual's identity and well-being. It’s often highly confidential and includes:

  • Social Security Numbers (SSN)
  • Driver's licence numbers
  • Credit card details
  • Bank account numbers
  • Medical records
  • Biometric data (fingerprints, iris scans)
  • Passport numbers

Exposing sensitive PII can have severe consequences for your business, including hefty fines from regulatory bodies and even lawsuits from affected individuals — and that's not even considering the credibility loss you can face.

For instance, if you’re in charge of data processing for a healthcare provider and experience a breach of medical records, criminals could gain access to sensitive health information. This could lead to potential exploitation for fraudulent insurance claims or other malicious purposes, putting the practice at risk of facing legal action and prompting any existing clients to seek services from another provider.

Linkable Information

This category encompasses data that, while not inherently identifiable, can still help pinpoint a person when paired with other sensitive or non-sensitive information. It includes, but is not limited to:

  • IP addresses
  • Login IDs
  • Geolocation data
  • Postcodes

While a user's login ID itself isn't sensitive, linking it to specific browsing habits can reveal a customer's financial situation or purchasing preferences. Understanding how seemingly non-sensitive data points can still create a PII profile is a must to stay out of trouble when your company handles large datasets. Not taking data protection lightly, even with information that might seem trivial, helps keep your customers safe and your public perception spotless. 

Contact Us For More Information

If you’d like to understand more about Zendata’s solutions and how we can help you, please reach out to the team today.

Risks Associated with PII

A PII breach can be a devastating blow that causes long-lasting consequences for organisations and affected customers alike. The average cost of data breaches in the United Kingdom was roughly $4 million in 2023. 

Identity theft is a major concern, particularly when it involves sensitive information like a person’s SSN or driving license. Criminals can use this data to impersonate individuals and even obtain loans and credit cards in their name. Recovering from these issues can be a lengthy and stressful ordeal that leaves victims with financial burdens and businesses with significant liabilities.

Financial information is another prime target for cybercriminals. A breach exposing this type of PII can lead to unauthorised charges or fraudulent money transfers. Businesses may also face legal consequences and incur hefty fines if the breach happens as a result of inadequate data security measures.

But perhaps the worst consequence of a PII data breach for your business is the erosion of customer trust. News of a data leak can severely damage your company's reputation. This may lead to customer churn and difficulty attracting new business.

Consumers grow more privacy-conscious each day and a breach demonstrates a failure to safeguard their personal information — which they may forgive but never forget.

Legal and Regulatory Frameworks

Maintaining data security is one of the main challenges business owners face in this day and age. Luckily, numerous regulations and frameworks exist to help organisations protect personal data. Beyond defending individuals' privacy, these laws also hold businesses accountable for managing PII responsibly. 

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example, applies to any organisation processing the personal data of EU residents, regardless of its location. This regulation grants individuals a wide range of rights regarding their PII, including the freedom to access, rectify, and erase their data. For companies, conversely, GDPR compliance demands robust data security practices, clear data governance policies, and transparency in data collection and usage.

One of the most popular data privacy laws in the United States is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). It protects the individually identifiable health information maintained by medical institutions, insurance companies, and organizations managing healthcare data. The regulation outlines specific security and privacy requirements for covered entities to guarantee the confidentiality and integrity of protected health information (PHI) — which is an even more specific type of sensitive PII.

Lastly, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) gives individuals the right to access, delete, and opt out of the sale of their personal data. For organisations that operate within California or collect data from California residents, CCPA compliance mandates clear data privacy policies and solid mechanisms for handling data subject requests. In addition, it requires businesses to respect consumer choice regarding the use of their PII.

Best Practices for Protecting PII

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to protecting PII. However, as mentioned earlier, there are numerous measures you can implement to make this ongoing practice a lot easier. The most relevant are:

Data Minimisation

This principle emphasises collecting only the PII data essential for your business operations. Resist the urge to gather vast amounts of data "just in case." The more data you have in your possession, the more challenging it gets to watch over it. This approach also conflicts with most privacy laws.

Data Discovery

When we say data discovery, we mean identifying and classifying PII within your existing databases. Implementing a solution like Zendata's Privacy Mapper can support your efforts by scanning your entire IT infrastructure to identify, map and classify PII.  The platform provides real-time recommendations on how to mitigate data risks as they are discovered.

Access Controls and Encryption

Both of these strategies work hand-in-hand when building and implementing a risk mitigation strategy. Access controls restrict who can see and modify PII. Encryption scrambles the data you store and share, rendering it unusable for unauthorised parties.

Regular Audits and Monitoring

The mean number of days to identify a data breach is approximately 204. Conducting periodic reviews of your security measures and data access logs helps identify and address vulnerabilities before cybercriminals even have the chance to exploit them.

Employee Training and Awareness

Educating your staff on PII protection best practices empowers them to recognise and avoid the most common security risks. Training should cover topics like:

  • Phishing scams
  • Password hygiene
  • Proper data handling procedures

Incident Response Planning

Having a clear incident response plan in place is pretty much mandatory nowadays. This measure ensures a swift and coordinated response in the event of a data leak. In turn, it minimises the damage and facilitates recovery.

Mitigating Risks

When managed effectively, PII is an incredibly valuable asset. It allows you to personalise customer experiences, target marketing campaigns effectively, build strong relationships with your clientele and more. In exchange for this collection of insights, though, you must safeguard the privacy of that data and prevent any unauthorised access or leaks that could compromise the integrity of what your clients have shared with you — and tarnish your reputation in the process.

While the best practices covered earlier are essential in risk mitigation, additional strategies can further reduce the risk of PII exposure. These include:

  • Anonymisation: This technique irreversibly transforms PII into a form that nobody can re-identify.
  • Pseudonymisation: This approach replaces PII with a substitute identifier, allowing for re-identification under specific controlled circumstances.
  • Secure data destruction practices: When PII reaches the end of the data lifecycle within your company, simply deleting it might not be enough. A much safer alternative is overwriting it with random characters. Alternatively, you could use specialised software to erase information permanently.

Emerging Trends in PII Protection

The evolution of technology presents numerous challenges for the protection of PII. However, it also brings plenty of opportunities for timely breach detection and risk mitigation. 

Believe it or not, blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrencies, is a great privacy tool that’s rising in popularity. Unlike traditional data security methods that rely on potentially vulnerable centralised systems, blockchain employs distributed ledger technology. This means data rests in tamper-proof blocks across a network of computers, significantly enhancing security against unnoticed alterations.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is another resource gaining traction in data security. Properly trained AI tools can automatically identify and classify PII within datasets. This allows for better data governance and reduces the risk of accidental exposure. In addition, AI algorithms can analyse network traffic and user behaviour to identify anomalies that might indicate a breach.

Yes, both technologies are still under development and may have some flaws. However, it’s only a matter of time before they reach a level of refinement that allows you to safeguard PII with greater confidence and effectiveness.

Understanding the different types of PII you collect helps you manage it more effectively and keep it under wraps. Failing to protect your customers' sensitive information can destroy trust, hurt your reputation and lead to hefty fines. 

Don't wait for a data breach. Take a proactive approach to data security and privacy with the help of Zendata. Our Privacy Mapper and Code Scanner are excellent tools to identify, classify and protect PII within your IT infrastructure and codebases. 

Start your free 14 day trial today.

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Contact Us For More Information

If you’d like to understand more about Zendata’s solutions and how we can help you, please reach out to the team today.

PII, PI and Sensitive Data: Types, Differences and Privacy Risks

April 18, 2024

TL;DR

This article explores the primary types of sensitive data and how to distinguish between them. It also delves into the risks each carries, the best practices for keeping this information safe and the technological advancements and trends impacting data security. Safeguarding sensitive data in business is crucial to maintaining trust among customers and stakeholders and preventing reputational damage. Having a deep understanding of the key frameworks and regulations that make this possible empowers you to remain compliant and stay ahead of potential threats.

Introduction

Businesses all over the world and across industries are entrusted with copious amounts of information from their customers every minute. Some of it, known as Personally Identifiable Information (PII), needs particular care and attention because of its sensitive nature.

This type of sensitive data, which can range from the obvious to seemingly innocuous details, can become an effective instrument to single out specific individuals. That’s why, in the wrong hands, it can wreak havoc for your clients and your organisation. 

Data breaches are unfortunately becoming more common by the minute, with cybercriminals constantly developing new methods to exploit vulnerabilities in systems and networks. About 52% of data breaches involve some form of customer PII, according to a 2023 IBM report.

This percentage has grown exponentially over the years, and it’s notably cost companies just like yours millions of dollars in legal penalties and lost customers. The good news is that there are certain measures you can take to minimise the risk of a PII breach.

Here’s what you should know.

Key Takeaways

  1. Differentiating sensitive and non-sensitive PII is key to implementing effective data protection measures.
  2. A PII breach can result in identity theft, financial loss and reputational damage for your business.
  3. Data minimisation, access controls, encryption, regular audits and employee training are essential to safeguarding PII.
  4. Regulations like GDPR, HIPAA, and CCPA outline the rules for maintaining data security and protecting sensitive information.
  5. Monitoring emerging trends in PII protection, such as advancements in Blockchain and AI, can help you stay ahead of evolving threats.

Overview of PII: What Is Personally Identifiable Information?

Personal Information (PI) is more accessible than ever, which makes it all the more vulnerable. Examples of personal information include any data related to an individual, whether it is their hair colour, their favourite food, or what they prefer to do for fun on a Friday night.

However, within the broader category of PI, you can find more specific datasets known as Personally Identifiable Information — or PII, for short. These consist of narrowed-down pieces of data you can trace back to certain individuals, potentially revealing their identity and compromising their privacy and security when managed incorrectly.

NIST's definition of Personally Identifiable Information is: "Any representation of information that permits the identity of an individual to whom the information applies to be reasonably inferred by either direct or indirect means."

Beyond names and addresses, PII may encompass: 

  • Birth Dates
  • Contact information
  • Social Security Numbers (SSN) or National Insurance Numbers (UK)
  • Medical records
  • Financial account details

It’s important to note that not all PII is created equal and the level of sensitivity associated with it can vary based on several factors. In a nutshell, you can classify this type of information into two categories: non-sensitive and sensitive.

The former includes details that, while important to protect, may not pose a significant risk if compromised. On the other hand, the latter includes information that, if exposed, could have severe consequences for your customers.

Data can become more sensitive when it's linked or linkable. This refers to situations where seemingly irrelevant PII, in combination with other data sources, helps single out a specific person. A good example of this could be if a customer’s name and postcode, combined with their purchase history at your company, help attackers build a detailed profile of their target.

For more details on Data Classification, check out this article.

Types of PII

As stated above, Personally Identifiable Information comes in many shapes and levels of sensitivity. The possible repercussions of data exposure vary depending on the proximity of the information to the individual it represents. 

Understanding the different categories of PII is compulsory, especially when planning effective data protection and risk mitigation strategies. The three main types of PII are:

Non-Sensitive PII

This category includes information that, on its own, may not directly lead to any particular individuals. Examples include:

  • Names
  • Email addresses
  • Birthdates
  • Employer

For example, a random email address with no user linked to it might not be a cause for concern. Yet, a mailing list containing thousands of names and email addresses may catch the interest of spammers and identity thieves. 

Pieced together, these identifiers can help to form a more complete picture of who a person is. In other words, combining two or more non-sensitive data points can compromise a customer’s security.

Sensitive PII

This data type is directly linked to an individual's identity and well-being. It’s often highly confidential and includes:

  • Social Security Numbers (SSN)
  • Driver's licence numbers
  • Credit card details
  • Bank account numbers
  • Medical records
  • Biometric data (fingerprints, iris scans)
  • Passport numbers

Exposing sensitive PII can have severe consequences for your business, including hefty fines from regulatory bodies and even lawsuits from affected individuals — and that's not even considering the credibility loss you can face.

For instance, if you’re in charge of data processing for a healthcare provider and experience a breach of medical records, criminals could gain access to sensitive health information. This could lead to potential exploitation for fraudulent insurance claims or other malicious purposes, putting the practice at risk of facing legal action and prompting any existing clients to seek services from another provider.

Linkable Information

This category encompasses data that, while not inherently identifiable, can still help pinpoint a person when paired with other sensitive or non-sensitive information. It includes, but is not limited to:

  • IP addresses
  • Login IDs
  • Geolocation data
  • Postcodes

While a user's login ID itself isn't sensitive, linking it to specific browsing habits can reveal a customer's financial situation or purchasing preferences. Understanding how seemingly non-sensitive data points can still create a PII profile is a must to stay out of trouble when your company handles large datasets. Not taking data protection lightly, even with information that might seem trivial, helps keep your customers safe and your public perception spotless. 

Contact Us For More Information

If you’d like to understand more about Zendata’s solutions and how we can help you, please reach out to the team today.

Risks Associated with PII

A PII breach can be a devastating blow that causes long-lasting consequences for organisations and affected customers alike. The average cost of data breaches in the United Kingdom was roughly $4 million in 2023. 

Identity theft is a major concern, particularly when it involves sensitive information like a person’s SSN or driving license. Criminals can use this data to impersonate individuals and even obtain loans and credit cards in their name. Recovering from these issues can be a lengthy and stressful ordeal that leaves victims with financial burdens and businesses with significant liabilities.

Financial information is another prime target for cybercriminals. A breach exposing this type of PII can lead to unauthorised charges or fraudulent money transfers. Businesses may also face legal consequences and incur hefty fines if the breach happens as a result of inadequate data security measures.

But perhaps the worst consequence of a PII data breach for your business is the erosion of customer trust. News of a data leak can severely damage your company's reputation. This may lead to customer churn and difficulty attracting new business.

Consumers grow more privacy-conscious each day and a breach demonstrates a failure to safeguard their personal information — which they may forgive but never forget.

Legal and Regulatory Frameworks

Maintaining data security is one of the main challenges business owners face in this day and age. Luckily, numerous regulations and frameworks exist to help organisations protect personal data. Beyond defending individuals' privacy, these laws also hold businesses accountable for managing PII responsibly. 

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example, applies to any organisation processing the personal data of EU residents, regardless of its location. This regulation grants individuals a wide range of rights regarding their PII, including the freedom to access, rectify, and erase their data. For companies, conversely, GDPR compliance demands robust data security practices, clear data governance policies, and transparency in data collection and usage.

One of the most popular data privacy laws in the United States is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). It protects the individually identifiable health information maintained by medical institutions, insurance companies, and organizations managing healthcare data. The regulation outlines specific security and privacy requirements for covered entities to guarantee the confidentiality and integrity of protected health information (PHI) — which is an even more specific type of sensitive PII.

Lastly, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) gives individuals the right to access, delete, and opt out of the sale of their personal data. For organisations that operate within California or collect data from California residents, CCPA compliance mandates clear data privacy policies and solid mechanisms for handling data subject requests. In addition, it requires businesses to respect consumer choice regarding the use of their PII.

Best Practices for Protecting PII

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to protecting PII. However, as mentioned earlier, there are numerous measures you can implement to make this ongoing practice a lot easier. The most relevant are:

Data Minimisation

This principle emphasises collecting only the PII data essential for your business operations. Resist the urge to gather vast amounts of data "just in case." The more data you have in your possession, the more challenging it gets to watch over it. This approach also conflicts with most privacy laws.

Data Discovery

When we say data discovery, we mean identifying and classifying PII within your existing databases. Implementing a solution like Zendata's Privacy Mapper can support your efforts by scanning your entire IT infrastructure to identify, map and classify PII.  The platform provides real-time recommendations on how to mitigate data risks as they are discovered.

Access Controls and Encryption

Both of these strategies work hand-in-hand when building and implementing a risk mitigation strategy. Access controls restrict who can see and modify PII. Encryption scrambles the data you store and share, rendering it unusable for unauthorised parties.

Regular Audits and Monitoring

The mean number of days to identify a data breach is approximately 204. Conducting periodic reviews of your security measures and data access logs helps identify and address vulnerabilities before cybercriminals even have the chance to exploit them.

Employee Training and Awareness

Educating your staff on PII protection best practices empowers them to recognise and avoid the most common security risks. Training should cover topics like:

  • Phishing scams
  • Password hygiene
  • Proper data handling procedures

Incident Response Planning

Having a clear incident response plan in place is pretty much mandatory nowadays. This measure ensures a swift and coordinated response in the event of a data leak. In turn, it minimises the damage and facilitates recovery.

Mitigating Risks

When managed effectively, PII is an incredibly valuable asset. It allows you to personalise customer experiences, target marketing campaigns effectively, build strong relationships with your clientele and more. In exchange for this collection of insights, though, you must safeguard the privacy of that data and prevent any unauthorised access or leaks that could compromise the integrity of what your clients have shared with you — and tarnish your reputation in the process.

While the best practices covered earlier are essential in risk mitigation, additional strategies can further reduce the risk of PII exposure. These include:

  • Anonymisation: This technique irreversibly transforms PII into a form that nobody can re-identify.
  • Pseudonymisation: This approach replaces PII with a substitute identifier, allowing for re-identification under specific controlled circumstances.
  • Secure data destruction practices: When PII reaches the end of the data lifecycle within your company, simply deleting it might not be enough. A much safer alternative is overwriting it with random characters. Alternatively, you could use specialised software to erase information permanently.

Emerging Trends in PII Protection

The evolution of technology presents numerous challenges for the protection of PII. However, it also brings plenty of opportunities for timely breach detection and risk mitigation. 

Believe it or not, blockchain, the technology behind cryptocurrencies, is a great privacy tool that’s rising in popularity. Unlike traditional data security methods that rely on potentially vulnerable centralised systems, blockchain employs distributed ledger technology. This means data rests in tamper-proof blocks across a network of computers, significantly enhancing security against unnoticed alterations.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is another resource gaining traction in data security. Properly trained AI tools can automatically identify and classify PII within datasets. This allows for better data governance and reduces the risk of accidental exposure. In addition, AI algorithms can analyse network traffic and user behaviour to identify anomalies that might indicate a breach.

Yes, both technologies are still under development and may have some flaws. However, it’s only a matter of time before they reach a level of refinement that allows you to safeguard PII with greater confidence and effectiveness.

Understanding the different types of PII you collect helps you manage it more effectively and keep it under wraps. Failing to protect your customers' sensitive information can destroy trust, hurt your reputation and lead to hefty fines. 

Don't wait for a data breach. Take a proactive approach to data security and privacy with the help of Zendata. Our Privacy Mapper and Code Scanner are excellent tools to identify, classify and protect PII within your IT infrastructure and codebases. 

Start your free 14 day trial today.