Privacy and Personally Identifying Information (PII)

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What is an identity?

Identity is the set of distinguishing characteristics of an individual—the sum of what you are, what you know, and what you have. Identity can also apply to objects. Identity is permanent—it cannot change. In the digital world your identity takes on a entirely new set of characteristics, some of which are more valuable than others.

What is privacy in the context of identity?

Privacy is the right to control when, where, how, and why one's personally identifying information is collected and shared.

What is personally identifying information?

Personally identifying information (PII) is information that is used to distinguish or trace an individual's identity. In other words, information that is unique to or describes that individual.

Are some pieces of PII more valuable or vulnerable than others?

PII can include very sensitive, specific information, which might include:

  • full name
  • date of birth
  • home address
  • home phone number
  • Social Security number
  • specific medical or financial information

But PII also encompasses less sensitive information, which might include:

  • military rank
  • marital status
  • religious affiliation
  • race
  • pets' names

The Center for Identity's Identity Ecosystem project has determined that attributes from the first group are most valuable in correctly identifying a person. However, identity thieves can use less-sensitive PII, when combined or used in tandem with more sensitive information, to steal other people's identities and commit crimes.

How can I protect my PII?

The best way to protect your personally identifying information is by treating it like an asset. You wouldn't just give away $100 without asking questions, would you? Similarly, you should think carefully before sharing your PII—both on and offline. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • To whom are you giving your PII? Will they share it with anyone else (such as third party advertisers or marketing companies)? How do they plan on keeping it safe?
  • What kind of PII are you sharing? Is it more or less sensitive information?
  • Where are you sharing your PII? If you're sharing online, do you have a secure Internet connection? Any public Wi-Fi is not secure. If you're sharing offline, are you keeping your PII in safe and secure locations?
  • Why are you sharing your PII? Is it for a good enough reason? Companies rarely give anything away for free, and that includes "benefits" or "rewards" for sharing your PII. What are the consequences of not sharing?

More information on protecting your personal information can be found in the Center for Identity's Identity Protection Toolkit.

How can I protect my identity online?

When you're thinking about sharing your personally identifying information online, ask yourself a few questions first:

  • Are you on a secure Internet connection? If you entered a password to access the Web, or you're on your mobile service provider's network, the connection is secure.
  • Are you on an encrypted Web site? If the Web site address on your browser starts with"https://" it is secure.
  • Does your computer have updated anti-virus and anti-spyware installed?
  • How will the Web site protect your PII? Will it share your PII with any other companies? You should be able to find this information under their "Privacy Policy."

How can I protect my identity offline?

Anything with PII—credit cards, IDs, statements, bills, claims—should be securely stored and securely discarded when no longer needed.

  • At work, keep your purse or wallet locked in a drawer.
  • At home, keep your documents locked in a safe, private place, away from roommates or guests.
  • Don't leave mail in your mailbox. Take outgoing mail to the post office.
  • Scratch off all the labels on your prescription bottles before throwing them away.
  • Shred any documents with your PII (credit offers and applications, receipts, insurance forms, medical information, bills, etc.) before throwing them away. Many banks and companies offer free "shred days" for their customers and employees.
  • Be sure to secure your computer and your mobile devices with strong passwords. Read the owners' manuals before discarding electronics and learn how to delete all PII—including SIM cards, contacts, passwords, call logs, text messages, pictures, voicemails, and browser history.
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What is IDWise?

Funded by a partnership with the Texas Legislature, and powered by the Center for Identity, IDWise is a resource center for the public on identity theft, fraud, and privacy. IDWise offers clear and accessible resources to empower citizens—both online and offline—to be better informed and make smarter choices to protect their personal information.

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