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April 9, 2024
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 min read

What is Personally Identifiable Information and How to Protect PII ?

Personally Identifiable Information (PII) refers to any data that can be used on its own or with other information to identify, contact, or locate a single person, or to identify an individual in context.

What is Personally Identifiable Information and How to Protect PII ?
Calendar Icon White
April 9, 2024
Clock Icon
 min read

What is Personally Identifiable Information and How to Protect PII ?

Personally Identifiable Information (PII) refers to any data that can be used on its own or with other information to identify, contact, or locate a single person, or to identify an individual in context.


In the digital ecosystem, the protection of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) has emerged as a critical concern for organizations worldwide. PII refers to any information that can be used alone or in combination with other information to identify, contact, or locate a single person or to identify an individual in context.

This article explores the intricacies of PII in the cybersecurity landscape, highlighting why it's a prime target for cybercriminals and how its protection is vital for personal privacy and organizational security.

Defining PII

Personally Identifiable Information (PII) encompasses a broad spectrum of information used to identify, contact, or locate an individual, either directly or when combined with other accessible data. In the context of cybersecurity, understanding and correctly identifying PII is crucial for implementing effective data protection strategies. PII can be classified into two main categories: direct and indirect PII.

Direct PII

Direct PII refers to information that can be used to identify an individual without needing additional data directly. This category includes:

Examples of PII
  • Names: Full name, maiden name, mother’s maiden name, or alias.
  • Personal Identification Numbers: Social Security numbers (SSN), passport numbers, driver's license numbers, taxpayer identification numbers, patient identification numbers.
  • Personal Contact Information: Email addresses, telephone numbers, and home addresses.
  • Biometric Data: Fingerprints, retinal patterns, and DNA.

Indirect PII

Indirect PII, on the other hand, may not identify an individual on its own but can do so when combined with other information. Examples of indirect PII include:

Indirect PII data examples
  • Employment Information: Workplace location, job titles, and work contact information.
  • Geographical Data: Zip codes, geographic indicators, or even IP addresses when linked with other identifiers.
  • Date of Birth: Especially when combined with more specific identifiers like location.
  • Digital Identifiers: Login IDs, social media profiles, and behavioral data.

Special Considerations

While not always considered PII in isolation, certain types of data can become sensitive when aggregated. For instance, when analyzed collectively, consumer purchase history or online search behaviors might reveal personal preferences, affiliations, or medical conditions.

The Fluid Nature of PII

The definition of PII is not static; it evolves as technology and data analytics techniques become more sophisticated. What might not have been considered PII a decade ago, such as a combination of a ZIP code and date of birth, can today identify an individual with high accuracy. 

This fluid nature of PII underscores the importance of adopting a broad perspective on data privacy and protection, acknowledging that the scope of what constitutes personally identifiable information expands in tandem with advancements in data processing capabilities.

Regulatory Perspectives on PII

Different jurisdictions may have varying definitions of PII, influenced by local data protection laws and cultural attitudes toward privacy. For example, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union introduces the concept of 'personal data' with a wide scope, encompassing any information related to an identifiable person. Understanding these regulatory nuances is essential for organizations operating across multiple legal frameworks, ensuring compliance and protecting individual rights effectively.

The Importance of Protecting PII

Personally Identifiable Information (PII) has transcended beyond a simple best practice—it has become a cornerstone of maintaining trust, ensuring privacy, and safeguarding the financial and reputational standing of organizations. The significance of PII protection is multifaceted, encompassing legal compliance, individual privacy, and the prevention of financial fraud and identity theft. Here's a deeper dive into why PII protection is paramount:

1. Legal and Regulatory Compliance

Organizations across the globe are subject to a myriad of data protection laws and regulations designed to safeguard personal information. Laws such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), and others impose stringent requirements on how PII should be collected, processed, stored, and shared. Non-compliance can result in severe penalties, including hefty fines and sanctions, but perhaps more significantly, it can damage an organization's reputation. A commitment to PII protection is a commitment to regulatory compliance and ethical responsibility.

2. Protection Against Identity Theft and Financial Fraud

PII can be a goldmine for cybercriminals, especially when compromised in large volumes. Identity theft, financial fraud, phishing scams, and other malicious activities can all stem from unauthorized access to PII. Individuals whose information has been compromised may face significant financial loss, damage to credit scores, and the arduous process of reclaiming their identity. For organizations, the fallout from such breaches can include financial repercussions and loss of customer trust—an intangible asset that's difficult to rebuild.

3. Safeguarding Privacy and Maintaining Trust

Consumers are increasingly aware of and concerned about their privacy in today’s digital ecosystem. Protecting PII is not merely about compliance; it's about respecting individuals' rights to privacy and securing customers’ trust in organizations. A breach of personal information can erode trust overnight, affecting customer loyalty and potentially leading to a loss of business. Organizations prioritizing PII protection demonstrate a commitment to privacy, building stronger relationships with their customers and stakeholders.

4. The Role of PII in Cybersecurity Strategies

Protecting PII is a critical component of an organization’s broader cybersecurity strategy. Effective cybersecurity measures—such as data encryption, access controls, and regular security audits—are essential in preventing unauthorized access to PII. Additionally, a culture of security awareness among employees can mitigate the risk of accidental exposure or phishing attacks. Protecting PII is a shared responsibility permeating every level of an organization, from the C-suite to frontline employees.

Real-World Consequences of PII Exposure

Exposure to PII can have tangible, immediate consequences. Just in January, there was a massive leak dubbed Mother of All Breaches (MOAB for short), which contained meticulously compiled and reindexed leaks, breaches, and privately sold databases. Imagine your personal data being available on the Internet and used however cyberthreats want it to.

Best Practices for Protecting PII

Here are essential best practices for protecting PII, culminating in strategically deploying Data Loss Prevention (DLP) tools like Strac to combat PII exposure effectively.

1. Data Encryption

Encrypting data at rest and in transit ensures that even if unauthorized access occurs, the information remains indecipherable and useless to attackers. Implementing strong encryption standards is a foundational step in PII protection.

2. Access Control and Authentication

Strictly control who has access to PII by implementing robust authentication and access controls. The principle of least privilege should guide these controls, ensuring individuals have access only to the information necessary for their job functions.

3. Regular Security Audits and Assessments

Conducting regular security audits helps identify vulnerabilities in your systems that could be exploited to access PII. Coupled with risk assessments, these audits inform about the areas requiring immediate attention and security enhancement.

4. Data Minimization

Collect only the PII absolutely necessary for your operations, and retain it only as long as needed. Data minimization reduces the risk and potential impact of a data breach.

5. Employee Training and Awareness

Employees often serve as the first line of defense against cyber threats. Regular training on data privacy practices, recognizing phishing attempts, and secure handling of PII can significantly reduce the risk of accidental or intentional data breaches.

6. Incident Response Plan

Prepare an incident response plan to address any data breaches or exposure of PII quickly. A well-defined plan enables an organization to respond effectively, promptly minimizing damage and restoring security.

Integrating Strac as Your DLP Partner

While the above practices provide a robust foundation for PII protection, integrating a dedicated Data Loss Prevention (DLP) tool can elevate your data security strategy to new heights. Strac, with its advanced DLP capabilities, stands out as an optimal partner in the fight against PII exposure.

  • Automated PII Discovery and Classification: Strac simplifies the identification and categorization of PII across your digital landscape, ensuring sensitive information is accurately detected and protected.
Automated PII discovery and classification in Slack
  • Real-Time Monitoring and Alerting: With Strac, you can monitor the flow of PII in real time, receive immediate alerts on unauthorized access attempts or potential breaches, and enable swift remedial action.
Sensitive PII monitoring and detection in Outlook
  • Seamless Policy Enforcement: Strac allows for the easy implementation and enforcement of data protection policies, ensuring compliance with regulatory standards and internal security protocols.
DLP policy setting in Strac
  • User-Friendly Interface: Designed with usability in mind, Strac facilitates engagement and adoption across the organization, enhancing the overall effectiveness of your PII protection strategy.
  • Scalable and Versatile: Whether you're a small enterprise or a large corporation, Strac's scalable solution fits seamlessly into your existing IT infrastructure, providing versatile protection across various data types and storage locations.
Strac DLP integration with SaaS applications like ChatGPT, Slack, Zendesk, Intercom, Notion

Incorporating Strac into your cybersecurity toolkit strengthens your defenses against PII exposure and demonstrates a proactive commitment to data privacy and security. As digital threats evolve, partnering with a forward-thinking DLP provider like Strac ensures your organization remains equipped to protect its most valuable asset—data.

Take Action with Strac

Elevate your organization's PII protection measures by integrating Strac into your cybersecurity framework. Experience peace of mind with the comprehensive, automated, and real-time protection that Strac offers, safeguarding your sensitive data against the ever-present threat of exposure. Join the ranks of security-conscious organizations that trust Strac as their DLP partner.

Founder, Strac. ex-Amazon Payments Infrastructure (Widget, API, Security) Builder for 11 years.

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