Personal data

Personal data, also known as personal information or personally identifiable information is any information relating to an identifiable person.
The abbreviation PII is widely accepted in the United States, but the phrase it abbreviates has four common variants based on personal / personally, and identifiable / identifying. Not all are equivalent, and for legal purposes the effective definitions vary depending on the jurisdiction and the purposes for which the term is being used. Under European and other data protection regimes, which centre primarily around the General Data Protection Regulation, the term "personal data" is significantly broader, and determines the scope of the regulatory regime.
National Institute of Standards and Technology Special Publication 800-122 defines 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 any other information that is linked or linkable to an individual, such as medical, educational, financial, and employment information." So, for example, a user's IP address is not classed as PII on its own, but is classified as a linked PII. However, in the European Union, the IP address of an Internet subscriber may be classed as personal data.
Personal data is defined under the GDPR as "any information which related to an identified or identifiable natural person".
The concept of PII has become prevalent as information technology and the Internet have made it easier to collect PII leading to a profitable market in collecting and reselling PII. PII can also be exploited by criminals to stalk or steal the identity of a person, or to aid in the planning of criminal acts. As a response to these threats, many website privacy policies specifically address the gathering of PII, and lawmakers such as the European Parliament have enacted a series of legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation to limit the distribution and accessibility of PII.
Important confusion arises around whether PII means information which is identifiable or identifying. In prescriptive data privacy regimes such as HIPAA, PII items have been specifically defined. In broader data protection regimes such as the GDPR, personal data is defined in a non-prescriptive principles-based way. Information that might not count as PII under HIPAA can be personal data for the purposes of GDPR. For this reason, "PII" is typically deprecated internationally.


The U.S. government used the term "personally identifiable" in 2007 in a memorandum from the Executive Office of the President, Office of Management and Budget, and that usage now appears in US standards such as the NIST Guide to Protecting the Confidentiality of Personally Identifiable Information. The OMB memorandum defines PII as follows:
A term similar to PII, "personal data" is defined in EU directive 95/46/EC, for the purposes of the directive:
However, in the EU rules, there has been a clearer notion that the data subject can potentially be identified through additional processing of other attributes—quasi- or pseudo-identifiers. In the GDPR Personal Data is defined as:
Any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural person ; an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identifier such as a name, an identification number, location data, an online identifier or to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person
Another term similar to PII, "personal information" is defined in a section of the California data breach notification law, SB1386:
The concept of information combination given in the SB1386 definition is key to correctly distinguishing PII, as defined by OMB, from "personal information", as defined by SB1386. Information, such as a name, that lacks context cannot be said to be SB1386 "personal information", but it must be said to be PII as defined by OMB. For example, the name John Smith has no meaning in the current context and is therefore not SB1386 "personal information", but it is PII. A Social Security Number without a name or some other associated identity or context information is not SB1386 "personal information", but it is PII. For example, the SSN 078-05-1120 by itself is PII, but it is not SB1386 "personal information". However the combination of a valid name with the correct SSN is SB1386 "personal information".
The combination of a name with a context may also be considered PII; for example, if a person's name is on a list of patients for an HIV clinic. However, it is not necessary for the name to be combined with a context in order for it to be PII. The reason for this distinction is that bits of information such as names, although they may not be sufficient by themselves to make an identification, may later be combined with other information to identify persons and expose them to harm.
According to the OMB, it is not always the case that PII is "sensitive", and context may be taken into account in deciding whether certain PII is or is not sensitive.


In Australia, the Privacy Act 1988 deals with the protection of individual privacy, using the OECD Privacy Principles from the 1980s to set up a broad, principles-based regulatory model. Section 6 has the relevant definition. The critical detail is that the definition of 'personal information' also applies to where the individual can be indirectly identified:
This raises the question of reasonableness: assume it is theoretically possible to identify a person from information which does not include a name or address, but does contain clues which could be pursued to find out who it relates to. How much extra effort does it take to make it unreasonable that such information could be identified? For instance, if the information involves an IP address, and the relevant ISP stores logs which could easily be inspected to re-link the IP address to the account holder, can their identity be "reasonably ascertained"? If such linking used to be expensive, slow and difficult, but becomes easier, does this change the answer at some point?
It appears that this definition is significantly broader than the Californian example given above, and thus that Australian privacy law, while in some respects weakly enforced, may cover a broader category of data and information than in some US law.
In particular, online behavioral advertising businesses based in the US but surreptitiously collecting information from people in other countries in the form of cookies, bugs, trackers and the like may find that their preference to avoid the implications of wanting to build a psychographic profile of a particular person using the rubric of 'we don't collect personal information' may find that this does not make sense under a broader definition like that in the Australian Privacy Act.
Note that the term "PII" is not used in Australian privacy law.


European data protection law does not utilize the concept of personally identifiable information, and its scope is instead determined by non-synonymous, wider concept of "personal data".
Further examples can be found on the EU privacy website.

United Kingdom

The twelve Information Privacy Principles of the Privacy Act 1993 apply.


The Federal Act on Data Protection of 19 June 1992 has set up a strict protection of privacy by prohibiting virtually any processing of personal data which is not expressly authorized by the data subjects. The protection is subject to the authority of the Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner.
Additionally, any person may ask in writing a company the correction or deletion of any personal data. The company must respond within thirty days.

United States

The Privacy Act of 1974, a United States federal law, establishes a Code of Fair Information Practice that governs the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of personally identifiable information about individuals that is maintained in systems of records by federal agencies.
One of the primary focuses of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, is to protect a patient's Protected Health Information, which is similar to PII. The U.S. Senate proposed the Privacy Act of 2005, which attempted to strictly limit the display, purchase, or sale of PII without the person's consent. Similarly, the Anti-Phishing Act of 2005 attempted to prevent the acquiring of PII through phishing.
U.S. lawmakers have paid special attention to the social security number because it can be easily used to commit identity theft. The Social Security Number Protection Act of 2005 and Identity Theft Prevention Act of 2005 each sought to limit the distribution of an individual's social security number.

NIST definition

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is a physical sciences laboratory, and a non-regulatory agency of the United States Department of Commerce. Its mission is to promote innovation and industrial competitiveness
The following data, often used for the express purpose of distinguishing individual identity, clearly classify as personally identifiable information under the definition used by the National Institute of Standards and Technology :
The following are less often used to distinguish individual identity, because they are traits shared by many people.
However, they are potentially PII, because they may be combined with other personal information to identify an individual.
When a person wishes to remain anonymous, descriptions of them will often employ several of the above, such as "a 34-year-old white male who works at Target". Note that information can still be private, in the sense that a person may not wish for it to become publicly known, without being personally identifiable. Moreover, sometimes multiple pieces of information, none sufficient by itself to uniquely identify an individual, may uniquely identify a person when combined; this is one reason that multiple pieces of evidence are usually presented at criminal trials. It has been shown that, in 1990, 87% of the population of the United States could be uniquely identified by gender, ZIP code, and full date of birth.
In hacker and Internet slang, the practice of finding and releasing such information is called "doxing". It is sometimes used to deter collaboration with law enforcement. On occasion, the doxing can trigger an arrest, particularly if law enforcement agencies suspect that the "doxed" individual may panic and disappear.

State laws and significant court rulings

In forensics, particularly the identification and prosecution of criminals, personally identifiable information is critical in establishing evidence in criminal procedure. Criminals may go to great trouble to avoid leaving any PII, such as by:
Personal data is a key component of our Online identity and can be exploited by individuals. For instance, data can be altered and be used to create fake documents, hijack mail boxes and phone calls or harass people, like on the data breach from the EE Limited company.
Another key case can be referred as Financial Identity Theft
, usually about bank account and credit card information being stolen, and then used or sold.
Personal data can also be used to create fake Online identity, including fake accounts and profiles for celebrities to gather data from other users more easily. Even individuals can be concerned, especially for personal purpose.
The most critical information, such as password, date of birth, ID documents or Social Insurance Number, can be used to log in to different websites to gather more information and access more content.
Also, several agencies ask for discretion on subject related to their work, for the safety of their employees. For this reason, the United States Department of Defense has strict policies controlling release of personally identifiable information of DoD personnel. Many intelligence agencies have similar policies, sometimes to the point where employees do not disclose to their friends that they work for the agency.
Similar identity protection concerns exist for witness protection programs, women's shelters, and victims of domestic violence and other threats.

Trade of personal data

During the second half of the 20th century, the digital revolution introduced "privacy economics", or the trade of personal data. The value of data can change over time and in different contexts. Disclosing data can reverse information asymmetry, though the costs of doing so can be unclear. In relation to companies, consumers often have "imperfect information regarding when their data is collected, with what purposes, and with what consequences."
Writing in 2015, Alessandro Acquisti, Curtis Taylor and Liad Wagman identified three "waves" in the trade of personal data:
  1. In the 1970s, the Chicago Boys school claimed that protection of privacy could have a negative impact on the market because it could lead to incorrect and non-optimal decisions. Other researchers like Andrew F. Daughety and Jennifer F. Reinganum suggested that the opposite was true, and that absence of privacy would also lead to this.
  2. In the mid 1990s, Varian retook the Chicago Boys approach and added a new externality, stating that the consumer would not always have perfect information on how their own data would be used. Kenneth C. Laudon developed a model in which individuals own their data and have the ability to sell it as a product. He believed that such a system should not be regulated, to create a free market.
  3. In the 2000s, researchers worked on price discrimination, two-sided markets and marketing strategies. The theories became complex, and showed that the impact of privacy on the economy highly depended on the context.