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In social psychology personally identifiable information or personally identifying information (PII) is any piece of information which can potentially be used to uniquely identify, contact, or locate a single person.

Although the concept of PII is ancient, it has become much more important 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 plan a person's murder or robbery, among other crimes. As a response to these threats, many web site privacy policies specifically address the collection of PII, and lawmakers have enacted a series of legislation to limit the distribution and accessibility of PII.


Items which might be considered PII include, but are not limited to, a person's:

  • Full name (if not common)
  • National identification number
  • Telephone number
  • Street address
  • E-mail address
  • IP address (in some cases)
  • Vehicle registration plate number
  • Driver's license number
  • Face, fingerprints, or handwriting
  • Credit card numbers
  • Digital identity

Information that is not generally considered personally identifiable, because many people share the same trait, include:

  • First or last name, if common
  • Country, state, or city of residence
  • Age, especially if non-specific
  • Gender or race
  • Name of the school they attend or workplace
  • Grades, salary, or job position
  • Criminal record

When a person wishes to remain anonymous, descriptions of them will often employ several of the above, such as "a 34-year-old black man 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 of which are PII, may uniquely identify a person when brought together; this is one reason that multiple pieces of evidence are usually presented at criminal trials. For example, there may be only one Inuit person named Steve in the town of Lincoln Park, Michigan.

Related laws

Recently lawmakers have paid a great deal of attention to protecting a person's PII. One of the primary focuses of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), is to protect a patient's PII. The U.S. Senate has recently proposed the Privacy Act of 2005, which attempts to strictly limit the display, purchase, or sale of PII without the person's consent. Similarly, the Anti-phishing Act of 2005 attempts 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 seek to limit the distribution of an individual's social security number.

On the other hand, many businesses see this increasing load of legislation as excessive, an unnecessary expense, and a barrier to progress. The increasing complexity of the laws might force companies to consult a lawyer just to engage in simple business practices such as server logging, user registration, and credit checks. Some have predicted such measures may inhibit the industry as a whole, lowering wages and creating a barrier to entry. For this reason, a number of privacy laws stress the "acceptable uses" of PII, such as Massachusetts' Public Records Law and Fair Information Practices Act.

Laws, Regulations and Directives Effecting the Storage and Usage of Personal Data

Below are examples of legal frameworks affecting data privacy in the relevant stated jurisdiction.


  • Privacy Act (governs the Federal Government agencies)
  • Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) of (2001 government entities), (2004 All other entities)

United States of America

California has privacy written into the state constitution Article 1, Section 1

  • Online Privacy Protection Act (OPPA) of 2003

Federal Laws

  • Privacy Act of 2005
  • Information Protection and Security Act
  • Identity Theft Prevention Act of 2005
  • Online Privacy Protection Act of 2005
  • Consumer Privacy Protection Act of 2005
  • Anti-phishing Act of 2005
  • Social Security Number Protection Act of 2005
  • Wireless 411 Privacy Act
  • US 'Safe Harbor' Rules (EU Harmonisation)

Title 18 of the United States Code Section 1028d(7)

(7) the term "means of identification" means any name or number that may be used, alone or in conjunction with any other information, to identify a specific individual, including any -

(A) name, social security number, date of birth, official State or government issued driver's license or identification number, alien registration number, government passport number, employer or taxpayer identification number;

(B) unique biometric data, such as fingerprint, voice print, retina or iris image, or other unique physical representation;

(C) unique electronic identification number, address, or routing code; or

(D) telecommunication identifying information or access device (as defined in section 1029(e));

European Union (Member states)

  • Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights
  • Directive 95/46/EC (Data Protection Directive)
  • Directive 2002/58/EC (the E-Privacy Directive)
  • Directive 2006/24/EC Article 5 (The Data Retention Directive)

Further examples can be found on the EU privacy website.

United Kingdom & Ireland

  • The UK Data Protection Act 1998
  • The Irish Data Protection Acts 1998 and 2003
  • Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights
  • The UK Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000
  • Relevant Case Law
  • Employers' Data Protection Code of Practice
  • Model Contracts for Data Exports
  • The necessary content of Privacy Policies
  • The Privacy and Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003
  • The UK Interception of Communications (Lawful Business Practice) Regulations 2000
  • The UK Anti-Terrorism, Crime & Security Act 2001
  • The UK Privacy & Electronic Communications (EC Directive) Regulations 2003


In forensics, the tracking down of the identity of a criminal, personally identifiable information is critical in zeroing in on the subject. Criminals will go to great trouble to avoid leaving any PII; they wear masks (faces and hair are PII), gloves (fingerprints are PII), clothing that covers personal marks (tattoos and scars are PII) and avoid writing anything in their own handwriting (handwriting can be PII). Also, more modern 'masks' may be used, such as using a proxy IP address to avoid being tracked online so easily.

Personal safety

In some professions, it is dangerous for a person's identity to become known, because this information might be exploited violently by their enemies; for example, their enemies might hunt them down or kidnap loved ones to force them to cooperate. For this reason, the United States Department of Defense has a strict policy controlling release of PII.

See also

  • Personal identity (philosophical concept)
  • pseudonymity - Users sometimes compromise their pseudonymity by including personally identifiable information in messages, posts, or user pages.

External links

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