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?