Over the past few years, data breaches, including the kind that extract Personally Identifiable Information (PII), cost millions of dollars to companies. According to a report generated by IBM in 2021, customers’ Personally Identifiable Information was the most common and the costliest record type, included in 44% of data breaches and cost $180 per lost or stolen record. Accessing PII without authorization poses a significant risk to companies and individuals. While individuals become a victim of identity theft, fraud, and blackmailing, companies suffer the loss of public trust and have to incur hefty fines. So, are you wondering what is PII in cybersecurity and why it is so important to protect this information from security breaches? This article explores the importance of PII in cybersecurity and how you can protect yourself and your organization from such costly data breaches.
What is PII in Cybersecurity
PII is any data that can be used to uniquely identify a person. This includes names, Social Security Numbers (SSN), addresses, phone numbers, bank account numbers, and more. In short, all of your sensitive personal information falls under this umbrella.
When discussing cybersecurity, protecting PII is paramount. With many businesses storing customer data in their systems or networks, it’s essential for them to invest in reliable security measures that will protect the data from cyberattacks or other forms of unauthorized access. Without proper protection, criminals can probably gain access to sensitive customer information, leading to identity theft or other serious financial crimes.
What is the Purpose of a PII?
The purpose of a PII is to verify the identity of an individual. When a website or business collects and stores an individual’s information, they are essentially creating a digital image of a person that can be used for various purposes, such as to verify the customer’s identity online, track purchases, and even grant access to certain services.
PII is widely applicable in the banking sector. Many financial institutions use your personal information (name, address, SSN) to open accounts and approve loan applications. Therefore, these organizations must protect this sensitive data from unauthorized access or misuse.
What are Examples of PII?
The most commonly used PIIs are:
- Name: First, middle and last
- Social Security number (SSN)
- Date of birth
- Credit card information
- Driver’s license number
- Bank account numbers
- Home address and phone number
- Biometric data (fingerprints, voiceprint)
- Security questions and answers
- Online identifiers (ecookies, IP address)
- Sexual orientation
- Sex life
- Medical history
- Genetic data
- Trade union membership
- Religious or philosophical beliefs
- Political opinions
- Ethnic origin
All of this information is considered sensitive, so it’s important to protect it from unauthorized access. That’s why cybersecurity measures are in place to ensure that only authorized individuals can gain access to this data.
Who is Responsible for Protecting PII?
The primary responsibility for protecting PII lies with the organization that collects and stores it. Organizations must invest in appropriate security measures to protect customers’ data from unauthorized access.
Individuals also play a part in protecting their own personal information by taking steps such as using strong passwords, enabling two-factor authentication where available, avoiding suspicious links or downloads, and regularly reviewing their banking and credit card statements for any unusual activity.
Moreover, it’s important for businesses to be transparent about how they use customer data and ensure that customers are aware of what information is being collected. Customers have the right to know how their data is being used, stored, and secured.
Sensitive vs. Non-Sensitive PII
PII can be classified as sensitive and non-sensitive. The non-sensitive PII includes information like your name, address, phone number, and email address. This poses little risk, even if it falls into the wrong hands. However, sensitive PII includes data such as SSNs, bank account details, passwords, biometric data, etc. If stolen or accessed without authorization, it can lead to serious financial crimes, identity theft, etc.
While there are no hard and fast rules on what constitutes sensitive data, an effective strategy is to evaluate whether a piece of certain information can be easily accessed in public databases or phone books. For instance, while an individual’s personal telephone numbers can be considered private data, their names and email addresses from corporate directories can’t necessarily fit into this definition as they are usually available publicly.
According to regulatory standards, all sensitive data must adhere to specific protocols for storage and transfer. To protect this information from malicious third parties, encryption is essential, no matter if the data is at rest (sitting on a drive or in a database) or in motion (traveling across the network).
Not only is a PII subject to regulations but healthcare data and financial data are also safeguarded by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). HIPAA dictates the cybersecurity protocols for healthcare providers such as physicians, hospitals, dentists, insurance companies, etc., ensuring that all Protected Health Information (PHI) is safely handled.
A business needs to adhere to any of the stringent regulations imposed by governing bodies that oversee financial data, such as the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), and security benchmarks, such as Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS), the Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act, the PCI-DSS, etc. If it fails to do so, it will be exposed to punitive fines running into millions of dollars.
Best Cybersecurity Practices for PII Protection
To protect PII, organizations must develop a comprehensive data security and privacy program. This includes policies and procedures ensuring that confidential customer information is collected, stored, and managed securely.
Organizations should also establish an active monitoring system to detect any suspicious activity or unauthorized access attempts. In the event of a breach, organizations must be prepared to respond quickly with appropriate corrective actions, such as notifying affected customers, updating their systems and processes, and repairing any damage caused by the incident.
Finally, cybersecurity training for employees is essential to keep them up-to-date on best practices for working with personal information, such as how to identify phishing emails and other malicious threats. Organizations should also encourage employees to develop strong passwords and use two-factor authentication whenever possible.
How is PII Used in Identity Theft
Identity thieves often use stolen PII such as SSNs, bank account details, and driver’s license numbers to open accounts in their victim’s name or take loans. They can even obtain credit cards and transfer funds from those accounts.
Once identity thieves obtain someone’s personal information, they may use it to commit a variety of illegal activities, including fraud, forgery, and tax evasion. This is why organizations must have robust cybersecurity measures in place to protect confidential customer data from being accessed by malicious actors.
The good news is that with the right cybersecurity practices in place and timely detection of any suspicious activity, it’s possible to minimize PII breaches or even eliminate it altogether.
Why is PII Protected?
Such information needs to be protected so that individuals can maintain control over their personal data and prevent its misuse. This is why organizations must be transparent about how they use customers’ PIIs, as well as ensure that their sensitive data is stored securely and handled responsibly.
Current Threats in the Annual State of Phishing Report
To stay updated with the latest news in the cybersecurity industry, it’s essential to be informed about what kind of forms these threats are currently taking, as seen in the list:
- Cybercriminals are continuously refining their craft, utilizing sophisticated tactics and methods to breach established email security solutions
- According to the Cofense Phishing Defense Center, a staggering 67% or more of phishes reported by end users are credential-related
- Remote workers are at the highest risk for credential phishing and impersonation attacks, as users are required to employ multiple credentials for remote access
- Without human input and examination, thwarting malicious actors is impossible
- Employing a multilayered phishing defense strategy is essential for successfully protecting against the ever-changing dangers of cybercrime
Do You Need to Protect All Data Equally?
No, not all data needs to be treated equally when it comes to cybersecurity. PII and other data that is deemed sensitive should be given extra attention. This type of information can be used to commit identity theft or other malicious activities.
Organizations must ensure they have appropriate security measures in place for protecting PII and other sensitive data. This includes encryption technology and access controls. They should also establish policies and procedures for securely storing and managing confidential customer information at all times. To this end, as already mentioned, training employees in cybersecurity is essential.
Tips for Protecting PII
Organizations should take the following steps to protect PII from malicious actors:
- Encrypt sensitive data at rest and in transit
- Restrict access to confidential information on a need-to-know basis
- Use two-factor authentication whenever possible
- Implement policies and procedures for storing and managing personal information securely
- Monitor networks constantly for suspicious activity
- Provide cybersecurity training for employees so that they can identify phishing emails and other malicious threats
- Regularly back up data in case of emergency or breach
We hope that this article has offered you a clear understanding of what is PII in cybersecurity. If this has sparked your interest in pursuing a career in cybersecurity, then Emeritus’ online cybersecurity courses will help you to enhance the skills and knowledge to prepare!
By Melanie Das
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