What Is PII or Personally Identifiable Information?
PII or personally identifiable information is data or pieces of data linked directly to you. This is a legal term used in the United States and often mentioned in the tech industry due to privacy and data protection laws.
If cybercriminals get hold of your PII, they may use this information to impersonate you, leading to instances of identity (ID) theft.
What is considered PII?
PII is a term used by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology which pertains to any information about an individual capable of revealing his or her identity.
PII can be divided into two categories: linked and linkable data. Linked information can be easily connected to you such as your full name or home address. On the other hand, linkable information are snippets of your personal life. These may be harder to be traced back to you, but when put together, they can still create a full profile of you and your life.
What is the difference between personal information and personally identifiable information?
Though PII and personal information are both legal terms in the advertising, marketing, and technology industries, there are still a few nuances:
- Personally Identifiable Information (PII) - An American term referring to information used to identify individuals, including linked and linkable data. For example, one’s full name, Social Security number, banking information, etc.
- Personal Information - In the context of EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), this consists of any type of information about anyone. These references may include photos, location, browsing preferences, and social media posts. Simply put, personal information is any kind of data relating to a person, whether directly or indirectly.
To summarize, the EU's “personal information” has a much broader scope than the American PII.
What is not considered personally identifiable information?
In the digital realm, there are certain things not considered PII, simply because they won’t compromise your identity right away. This includes:
- Device type
- Browser type
- Plugin details
- Language preference
- Time zone
- Screen size
However, we must remember criminals can still target you, even with these anonymous pieces of information. For example, 2019’s high-profile security breaches showed hackers prefer to create online scams specific to Apple users. They may create phishing emails and websites directed at people using Macs or iPhones.
Is personally identifiable information the same in every country or state?
As previously mentioned, some countries are stricter when it comes to protecting the online privacy of their residents. In the US, though most states have similar privacy laws, there are several like California with far sterner rules relating to any data breach incidents.
However, more and more states are now continuing to expand their definition of “personal information”, including login credentials and biometric information.
How do you know if your personally identifiable information is compromised?
Thankfully, there are several ways to know if your PII has been leaked. Here are some online and offline ways of detecting it:
Data breach detection: Online tools
Here are some free online tools to help you figure out if your PII is secure:
- Search engines - Googling yourself is one of the simplest ways to check what information about you is out there.
- Breach Alarm - This free tool tells you if you need to change your password or if your login credentials have been compromised.
- Have I been pwned - This website allows you to check if your email has been involved in a data breach.
- Cybersecurity alert tools - There are cybersecurity apps like Clario to actively alert you if your PII has been leaked.
Other ways to detect compromised PII
Even without using online detection tools, here are some surefire ways of knowing if your linked information is in the hands of cybercriminals:
- Getting spoofing or phishing emails, text messages
- Receiving marketing messages you didn’t sign up for
- Getting billed for services you’ve never used
- When you sign up for a new website, they say your email address is already taken
- You experience other signs of ID theft
How to remove personally identifiable information online
If you really want to protect your PII, then you need to do the equivalent of removing all traces of yourself online. This seems impossible but you can take these simple steps to protect your privacy:
- Removing or deactivating social media accounts - These accounts contain linked information such as your email address and full name.
- Asking data collection sites to remove your information - If you signed up to promos before, some of the websites or brands may still have your PII. You can simply email them to request to be removed from their list or unsubscribe to marketing messages.
- Reporting any pages or websites illegally or unethically displays your private information - When you Google yourself and your personal data appears in forums or other sites and you don’t remember posting it there, report this right away. If it’s a Google-powered website, you can report it here.
- Closing down your old blogs or other personal websites containing your information - Your old blogs may have mentioned very personal things such as family members, where you live, your pet, your hobbies, etc. Privacy questions for two-factor authentication of banking sites often ask these personal questions. This means if a hacker is trying to get into your accounts, it would be easy for them to research these details.
How to better protect your personally identifiable information
Don’t wait for your PII to be leaked. Instead, follow these safety precautions now:
- Opt-out of websites tracking your information - Every time you visit a new website, it may ask you about your security preferences. It is recommended you don’t allow them to track you so you can keep your browsing habits private.
- Delete unnecessary apps - There have been incidents where apps have been linked to spyware or malware. Be careful about the apps you download onto your devices. Better yet, do an app purge and delete all your unneeded or unwanted apps.
- Be careful of public networks where you connect your devices - The information you send online may be in danger while connected to these unsecured public Wi-Fis.
- Make it a habit to change your passwords - After a data breach has been reported, check if your online accounts have been compromised. Even if they haven’t been affected by the security breach, remind yourself to change your passwords anyway.
- Have a strong cybersecurity software to protect your private data - With your precious private data, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Choose a cybersecurity app such as Clario to proactively protect you and regularly scan the web for your PII.
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