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April 9, 2024
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 min read

PII vs PHI vs PCI: Comprehensive Comparison

Explore the differences between PCI, PHI, and PII data, their regulations, and how to protect sensitive information in our comprehensive guide.

PII vs PHI vs PCI: Comprehensive Comparison
Calendar Icon White
April 9, 2024
Clock Icon
 min read

PII vs PHI vs PCI: Comprehensive Comparison

Explore the differences between PCI, PHI, and PII data, their regulations, and how to protect sensitive information in our comprehensive guide.


Navigating the complexities of data protection in today’s digital landscape requires a deep understanding of the types of sensitive information organizations commonly handle. Among the most frequently discussed are three critical categories: Personally Identifiable Information (PII), Protected Health Information (PHI), and Payment Card Information (PCI).

Each represents a distinct set of data with its own set of risks, regulatory requirements, and protection strategies. The distinctions between PII, PHI, and PCI are crucial for any organization striving for compliance and aiming to safeguard the privacy and security of the data under its stewardship.

This article comprehensively compares these categories, shedding light on their definitions, the legal frameworks governing them, and the best practices for protecting them. You can gain insights into managing each type of sensitive information effectively, thereby mitigating risks and ensuring regulatory compliance.

Defining PII, PHI, and PCI

PII (Personally Identifiable Information)

PII, or Personally Identifiable Information, is the cornerstone of individual privacy and data security practices within organizations worldwide. It encompasses a broad range of data that, when disclosed, could be used to identify, contact, or locate a single individual, directly or when combined with other accessible information. Given its widespread use across various operational and communication platforms, this category is central to discussions on data protection.

  • Definition: PII is any information that can pinpoint an individual’s identity. This definition is intentionally broad to encompass the diverse nature of data that can be considered personally identifiable, depending on the context of its use and potential for combination with other data elements.
  • Examples: The spectrum of PII is extensive. Traditional examples include a person's full name, postal address, email address, and Social Security number. However, as digital interactions have become more nuanced, PII now also covers digital identifiers like IP addresses, login IDs, digital images, and other unique identifiers. Even pieces of information that might not identify a person on their own, such as a birth date or zip code, can be classified as PII when combined with other data to identify an individual.
  • Regulatory Frameworks: Protecting PII is a central focus of numerous data protection regulations around the globe. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union sets a high standard for privacy, emphasizing the rights of individuals over their personal data. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) offers similar protections for residents of California, USA. Other frameworks, including the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) in Canada and the Data Protection Act in the UK, also provide guidelines and requirements for handling PII. These regulations mandate rigorous consent, notification, protective measures for handling PII, and significant penalties for breaches.

The necessity to protect PII arises not only from a legal standpoint but also as a matter of ethical responsibility and business integrity. The unauthorized disclosure of PII can lead to identity theft, financial fraud, and a loss of consumer trust, significantly impacting an organization's reputation and bottom line.

PHI (Protected Health Information)

PHI, or Protected Health Information, represents a category of sensitive data that demands rigorous safeguards to protect individuals' privacy and the confidentiality of their health-related information. This type of information encompasses a wide array of data points collected, processed, or stored by healthcare providers, health plans, and other entities involved in the healthcare ecosystem. The safeguarding of PHI is not just a regulatory mandate but a crucial aspect of maintaining trust between patients and healthcare providers.

  • Definition: Protected Health Information (PHI) is any data in a medical record or other information related to health care services that can be used to identify an individual. This definition emphasizes the broad scope of what constitutes PHI, recognizing that health-related information extends beyond medical records to include any form of data that can be linked to an individual and pertains to their health condition, treatment, or payment for healthcare services.
  • Examples: The range of data classified as PHI is extensive and includes medical records detailing a patient’s diagnosis, treatment plans, and medication information; billing and payment information related to healthcare services; laboratory test results; and insurance information. Even demographic information, such as a patient's name, address, birth date, and Social Security number, when associated with healthcare data, is considered PHI under regulatory standards.
  • The 18 PHI identifiers are:
    • Patient name
    • Address (all components)
    • All dates (birthdate, treatment dates, etc.)
    • Telephone numbers
    • Vehicle ID and serial numbers
    • Fax numbers
    • Device identifiers & serial numbers
    • Most device IDs are derived from the MAC address, IMEI number, or ESN number.
    • Email addresses
    • URLs
    • Social security numbers
    • IP addresses
    • Medical record numbers
    • Biometric IDs
    • Health plan numbers
    • Full-face photos
    • Account numbers
    • Any other uniquely identifying ID or code
    • Certificate or license numbers
List of PHI identifiers or data elements protected under HIPAA
  • Regulatory Framework: In the United States, the primary regulatory framework governing the protection of PHI is the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). HIPAA sets national standards for the security and privacy of PHI, requiring healthcare providers, plans, and clearinghouses to implement administrative, physical, and technical safeguards to ensure PHI’s confidentiality, integrity, and availability. HIPAA also establishes patients' rights over their health information, including rights to access their data, request corrections, and receive notices of privacy practices.

The protection of PHI extends beyond compliance to embody the ethical responsibility healthcare entities have toward individuals' privacy rights. Unauthorized access, disclosure, or breaches of PHI can have profound consequences, including identity theft, discrimination, and personal harm, highlighting the necessity for stringent security measures.

PCI (Payment Card Information)

PCI is a critical category of sensitive data in financial transactions and e-commerce, focusing on protecting information related to credit and debit card transactions. In an era of ubiquitous digital payments, securing PCI is paramount for safeguarding financial transactions against fraud and ensuring consumer trust in payment systems.

  • Definition: Payment Card Information (PCI) encompasses a range of data associated with credit and debit cards necessary to process card transactions securely. This information is crucial for identifying and verifying the cardholder and authorizing transactions. Protecting PCI is essential to prevent unauthorized access and misuse, which can lead to financial loss and identity theft.
  • Examples: The scope of PCI includes, but is not limited to, the cardholder's name as it appears on the card, the credit or debit card number (also known as the Primary Account Number or PAN), the card's expiration date, and the CVV code (Card Verification Value) found on the back of the card. Though not visible, additional elements like magnetic stripe data and chip data are also considered part of PCI and require stringent safeguards.
  • Regulatory Framework: The protection of PCI falls under the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), a set of security standards designed and enforced by the Payment Card Industry Security Standards Council. PCI DSS applies to all entities that store, process, or transmit cardholder data, outlining comprehensive requirements for security management, policies, procedures, network architecture, software design, and other protective measures. Compliance with PCI DSS is mandatory for merchants and service providers involved in payment card processing, ensuring a baseline of security to reduce card fraud and protect cardholder data across the payment ecosystem.

The significance of PCI DSS compliance extends beyond regulatory adherence; it embodies a commitment to maintaining a secure and trustworthy environment for financial transactions. Non-compliance not only risks penalties and fines but can also lead to damaging data breaches, loss of consumer confidence, and long-term reputational harm.

Protection Requirements and Strategies

Navigating the protection of sensitive information within the digital domain necessitates a nuanced understanding of the diverse types of data that organizations handle. From Personally Identifiable Information (PII) to Protected Health Information (PHI) and Payment Card Information (PCI), each category embodies unique security challenges and regulatory demands.

I've seen the evolution of data protection strategies in response to these challenges. Here, I delve into the specific requirements and methods for safeguarding PII, PHI, and PCI, drawing from my experience and industry best practices.

PII Protection

Protecting PII is foundational to safeguarding personal privacy and maintaining trust in the digital ecosystem. Key strategies include:

  • Encryption: Encrypting PII both at rest and in transit is critical. Strong encryption standards ensure that even if data is intercepted, it remains unreadable and secure from unauthorized access.
  • Access Controls: Implementing robust access control mechanisms ensures that only authorized personnel can access sensitive PII. This involves user authentication, role-based access control, and the principle of least privilege, where users are granted only the access necessary to perform their job functions.
  • Data Minimization: Collecting only the PII absolutely necessary for specific purposes and retaining it for no longer than needed helps reduce the risk of exposure. This practice enhances data security and aligns with regulatory principles promoting data economy.

Compliance with PII involves a deep commitment to principles of transparency, allowing individuals to understand how their data is used; accountability, ensuring organizations take responsibility for managing PII; and upholding individuals' rights over their data, including the rights to access, correct, and delete their information as dictated by laws like the GDPR and CCPA.

PHI Protection

The sensitive nature of health-related information demands stringent protection measures:

  • Stringent Access Controls: PHI access should be tightly regulated, ensuring that only healthcare providers and authorized personnel can view or handle this information. This includes employing multi-factor authentication and maintaining detailed access logs.
  • Audit Trails: Maintaining comprehensive audit trails for all access and modifications to PHI is crucial for tracking usage and detecting potential unauthorized access or breaches.
  • Physical Security Measures: Protecting the physical servers and storage where PHI is housed is as crucial as cybersecurity measures. Secure facilities, surveillance, and controlled access points prevent unauthorized physical access to PHI.
PHI protection checklist for HIPAA Compliance

Moreover, PHI encryption during electronic transmission is non-negotiable, safeguarding data integrity and confidentiality. When PHI is not necessary for specific healthcare operations, it should be de-identified, removing all direct and indirect identifiers to protect patient privacy.

PCI Protection

Securing PCI is paramount to preventing financial fraud and maintaining the integrity of the payment processing ecosystem:

  • Encryption of Cardholder Data: Encrypting PCI during storage and transmission ensures that sensitive card details are shielded from unauthorized access. This is a foundational requirement of PCI DSS.
  • Secure Network Architectures: Deploying secure network solutions that include firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and segregated networks for payment processing activities helps protect against external threats.
  • Regular Security Assessments: Conducting periodic security assessments, including vulnerability scanning and penetration testing, identifies potential weaknesses in systems handling PCI, ensuring timely remediation.
PCI data Protection SaaS Applications like Intercom

Access to cardholder data must be strictly need-to-know, supported by strong authentication methods to verify the identity of users accessing this information.

Implementing these protection strategies for PII, PHI, and PCI requires a multifaceted approach, integrating technological solutions, organizational policies, and a culture of security awareness. As threats evolve, so too must our strategies for safeguarding sensitive information, underscoring the importance of continuous assessment and adaptation in cybersecurity practices.

The Importance of Securing PII, PHI, and PCI

The repercussions of failing to protect these data types extend far beyond potential regulatory fines; they include severe reputational damage, loss of consumer trust, and direct financial losses from fraud and remediation efforts. Given the stakes, organizations must prioritize the deployment of comprehensive data protection strategies.

Amidst the diverse array of data protection tools and methodologies, Strac emerges as an exemplary Data Loss Prevention (DLP) partner, uniquely equipped to meet the challenges of securing PII, PHI, and PCI. Strac stands out due to its holistic approach to data security, offering features that not only prevent data breaches but also ensure compliance with the myriad of regulations governing sensitive data.

How Strac Can Help In Protecting Sensitive Data

  • Automated Data Discovery and Classification: Strac automates the process of identifying and classifying sensitive data across your digital environment. Whether it's PII, PHI, or PCI, Strac ensures that all sensitive information is accurately detected and labeled, laying the foundation for effective data protection strategies.
Automated sensitive data discovery, classification and remediation
  • Real-time Monitoring and Alerting: Leveraging advanced algorithms, Strac monitors data in real-time, providing immediate alerts for any unauthorized access attempts or suspicious data handling activities. This proactive stance allows organizations to respond swiftly to potential threats, minimizing the risk of data exposure.
Real time monitoring and detection of sensitive data in example by Strac DLP
  • Data Masking: Strac offers robust encryption and data masking capabilities, ensuring that sensitive data is rendered unreadable to unauthorized users. This is particularly critical for protecting PCI during transactions and PHI and PII during storage and transmission.
Sensitive data redaction in file containing PCI data
  • Comprehensive Compliance Management: Strac simplifies compliance with data protection regulations such as GDPR for PII, HIPAA for PHI, and PCI DSS for PCI. It provides organizations with the tools to manage consent, data access rights, and auditing requirements effectively, streamlining the compliance process.
  • Intuitive Policy Enforcement: With Strac, setting up and enforcing data protection policies becomes straightforward. Organizations can easily define rules for handling different types of sensitive data, ensuring consistent application of security measures across all digital assets.
Strac custom DLP policy settings dashboards

The consequences of data breaches can be devastating, both for the individuals whose data is compromised and for the organizations responsible for protecting it. This underscores the importance of choosing a DLP partner like Strac, whose comprehensive suite of features provides robust protection for all sensitive data types.

By leveraging Strac's advanced capabilities, organizations can ensure that their sensitive information is secure and managed in compliance with the highest standards of data protection regulations.


In today's digital landscape, where data breaches can tarnish reputations overnight and lead to significant financial and legal repercussions, securing sensitive information such as PII, PHI, and PCI is not just a necessity—it's an imperative. Safeguarding this data against ever-evolving threats and ensuring compliance with stringent regulatory standards can seem daunting. However, with the right tools and strategies, it's a challenge that organizations can confidently meet.

Strac stands at the forefront of Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions, offering a comprehensive suite of features designed to protect sensitive data across the board. Its automated discovery and classification, real-time monitoring, advanced encryption, and intuitive policy enforcement work in concert to provide a robust defense mechanism against data breaches. Moreover, Strac simplifies the complex landscape of compliance management, making it easier for organizations to navigate the requirements of GDPR, HIPAA, PCI DSS, and other regulations.

Contact Strac today and embark on your journey to a more secure digital future.

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

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