by Alexander C. Mueller

What is personally identifiable information, abbreviated P.I.I. or PII, and why is it important?

It’s easiest to break down backwards. First, it is Information, and typically the information so discussed is held by a large corporation of a government agency. Second, it Identifies some individual Person apart from the others. The term PII can sometimes refer by law to specific types of data, but the term is used broadly to refer to a broad category of data about everyday people that large organizations commonly end up storing.

Your name is the ultimate everyday example of PII. If you are standing next to someone else, a person who wanted your attention would say your name and not theirs - they’ve just used a small piece of information (your name) to identify you as one person apart from another.

Phone numbers are a bit more interesting. They do have a practical purpose, but they are also a good way to keep two people with the same name from getting confused in your database. Often, a business that collects this information on you is doing it for this sort of reason and not to actually try and call you. Phone number is thus another example of PII, information used to identify one person apart from another.

Thinking about data in this way is valuable because there are many white collar crimes and other misdeeds for which this sort of information is absolutely necessary to get started. Identity theft is the obvious and familiar example. However, there are many more scams you can only begin after you have enough information to target specific individuals and not groups of people. Imagine you are a foreign spy agency looking to recruit informants. Which is more helpful to you: 1) knowing that there are indebted people living in a particular city 2) a list of names, addresses, and phone numbers of indebted people in a particular city?

Humble Bundle: What counts as a breach?

A recent breach at Humble Bundle, marketer of discount computer games, exposes some interesting subtleties about what “data breach” should mean. You can get full details at the link below.

In this case, an attacker entered Humble Bundle’s system but was not able to carry off information wholesale. They did, however, exploit a flaw in Humble Bundle’s code that allowed them to answer a number of yes-or-no questions about Humble Bundle’s customers. The attackers essentially worked their way down a list of emails extracting information for each on whether that email was attached to an active subscription.

This provides a good illustration of a general principle: the more information the bad guys have, the more they can get. Absent other information, the hacker’s exploit of Humble Bundle is pretty useless… given a good guess at all the emails that might have a Humble Bundle subscription, the hacker’s exploit is as good as making off with the full list.

Every little bit of information that can be kept out of the hands of criminals is meaningful.

The ALERRT breach and the many public risks that breaches pose

Conversation about data breaches often focuses on consumer data held by businesses but there are all sorts of databases out there that might be dangerous in the wrong hands.  The recently announced breach of the ALERRT (Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training) is a great example.  More detail can be found here.   

ALERRT is an organization that provides active shooter response training to law enforcement officers.  The compromised database unfortunately presents significant risks to the public, not only to the 100,000+ law enforcement officers whose personal information was directly compromised but also the public in general via the information on likely targets and response readiness in municipalities across the country.

Exactis & Breaches at Aggregators

The data breach at Exactis is notable for its gravity, how it has probably been under-reported, and for how it provides a window into the buying and selling of consumer data behind the scenes. 

You can find more detailed reporting here.

It is common, much more than the general public is aware of, for companies to buy and sell databases of information on consumers for sales purposes.  Credit rating agencies are certainly not the only ones who strive to keep a record on the habits of every Americans.  Unfortunately, the companies that do this sort of aggregation are positioned to do special damage if they are compromised.