Personally Identifiable Information (PII) and Personal Health Information (PHI) are two categories of sensitive data pertaining to an individual’s profile. PII encompasses any data that can be used to identify an individual, such as names, addresses, social security numbers, or email addresses. PHI, on the other hand, refers specifically to sensitive medical and health-related information, including patient records, treatment histories, and insurance details.
PII and PHI are prime targets for cybercriminals due to their potential for identity theft, fraud, and medical fraud. Data breaches, ransomware attacks, and other forms of cybercrime are rampant and these types of data are among the most sought-after by malicious actors. The compromise of PII and PHI can have severe consequences for individuals, including financial loss and compromised privacy, as well as for organizations, which may face legal, financial, and reputational damage.
A Brief Overview of Personally Identifiable Information (PII) & Personal Health Information (PHI)
PII refers to any information that can be used to identify an individual, including but not limited to names, addresses, social security numbers, phone numbers, email addresses, financial data, and more. The development of PII can be traced back to the increasing digitization of personal information, spurred by the rise of the internet, e-commerce, and online communication platforms. Today, PII is used in a multitude of applications, from online account creation to financial transactions and social media profiles. Its unauthorized access or exposure poses significant risks, including identity theft, fraud, and privacy invasion.
PHI, on the other hand, focuses exclusively on sensitive health-related data. It encompasses patient records, medical histories, treatment details, insurance information, and any data related to an individual’s health or healthcare. PHI’s development is closely tied to the advancement of electronic health records (EHR) and the digitization of the healthcare industry. In contemporary healthcare systems, PHI plays a central role, enabling healthcare providers to deliver efficient and patient-centric care. However, the protection of PHI is crucial for health providers given the potential consequences of breaches, such as medical identity theft, unauthorized disclosure, or misuse of health-related information.
Today, both PII and PHI are at the forefront of cybersecurity concerns. Laws and regulations, such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) for PHI and various data protection acts for PII, have been enacted to enforce data security standards and hold organizations accountable for safeguarding these sensitive data categories.
How to Secure Personally Identifiable Information (PII) & Personal Health Information (PHI)
Regulatory frameworks for protecting Personally Identifiable Information (PII) and Personal Health Information (PHI) are vital in today’s digital landscape, as they set standards and requirements to safeguard sensitive data. These frameworks are designed to ensure the confidentiality, integrity, and availability of PII and PHI while providing individuals with greater control over their personal information. Businesses that handle these types of data are subject to these regulations and have implemented a range of measures to achieve compliance.
Regulatory Frameworks for PII include:
- General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) – The GDPR is a comprehensive European Union regulation that applies to organizations worldwide if they process the data of EU residents. It sets stringent requirements for data protection, consent, and individual rights. Businesses must obtain explicit consent to process PII, provide data subjects with access to their data, and implement robust security measures to protect this information.
- California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) – The CCPA is a state-level regulation in the U.S., specifically applying to businesses that collect and sell personal information of California residents. It grants consumers the right to know what data is collected, request deletion of their data, and opt-out of data sales.
Regulatory Frameworks for PHI include:
- Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) – HIPAA primarily addresses the confidentiality and security of PHI. It mandates strict controls on access to PHI, encryption of electronic PHI, and the implementation of safeguards to protect against unauthorized access or disclosure.
- Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH Act) – HITECH Act expanded HIPAA’s reach by strengthening enforcement and increasing penalties for non-compliance. It also promotes the adoption of electronic health records (EHR) and provides incentives for their meaningful use.
These regulatory frameworks establish guidelines and requirements that organizations must follow to protect PII and PHI. They typically include the following key elements:
- Data Protection Principles – Both GDPR and HIPAA define principles that require organizations to handle PII and PHI responsibly. This includes principles related to data minimization, purpose limitation, data accuracy, and storage limitation.
- Consent – GDPR mandates obtaining clear and explicit consent from data subjects before processing their PII. This principle ensures individuals have control over how their information is used. HIPAA, on the other hand, doesn’t require consent but necessitates informing patients about their rights concerning their PHI.
- Data Security – Data security is a fundamental aspect of these frameworks. They require organizations to implement technical and organizational measures to protect PII and PHI from unauthorized access, disclosure, alteration, or destruction. This includes encryption, access controls, and regular security assessments.
- Data Breach Notification – Both GDPR and HIPAA have provisions for data breach notification. Organizations must report data breaches to relevant authorities and affected individuals within specific timeframes. This allows individuals to take necessary precautions in case of a breach.
- Individual Rights – GDPR provides individuals with a range of rights over their PII, including the right to access, rectify, and erase their data. HIPAA grants patients rights to access their PHI and request corrections.
What Businesses Are Doing to Ensure Data Compliance
Businesses that handle PII and PHI have implemented various measures to achieve and maintain compliance with these regulatory frameworks:
- Data Encryption – Businesses use encryption to protect PII and PHI during storage, transmission, and processing. This ensures that even if unauthorized access occurs, the data remains confidential and unreadable.
- Access Controls – Robust access controls are crucial to limit who can access PII and PHI. This includes role-based access and user authentication mechanisms to ensure only authorized individuals can view or modify the data.
- Regular Audits and Assessments – Organizations conduct routine audits and security assessments to identify vulnerabilities, weaknesses, or compliance gaps. These assessments help in proactively addressing issues before they become major problems.
- Privacy Impact Assessments – GDPR mandates conducting Privacy Impact Assessments (PIAs) to evaluate the impact of data processing activities on data subjects’ privacy. Businesses use PIAs to identify and mitigate risks.
- Data Retention Policies – Implementing data retention policies ensures that PII and PHI are not retained longer than necessary. This aligns with the principle of storage limitation in GDPR.
- Data Breach Response Plans – Businesses have in place data breach response plans that outline steps to take in case of a security incident. Rapid response and notification are essential to meet compliance requirements.
- Employee Training – Employee training and awareness programs are critical. Staff members handling PII and PHI should be knowledgeable about data protection regulations, best practices, and security protocols.
- Audit Trails and Monitoring – Robust auditing and monitoring mechanisms track access and usage of PII and PHI. These audit trails help organizations identify unauthorized or suspicious activities and maintain compliance.
In a world where cyber threats are continually evolving, the protection of PII and PHI is a keystone in identity security. Organizations and individuals must implement robust defense measures, including encryption, access controls, regular audits, and employee training to ensure that these data types remain confidential and secure.