Let’s Stop Saying Personally Identifiable Information

Way back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and privacy law was in its infancy, someone coined the phrase “Personally Identifiable Information.”   This was done with the apparent intent that Personally Identifiable Information would mean – information that could be used to identify a specific person.  I think it’s fair to say that, in privacy land, this phrase has become the dominant way in which people refer to such information.

Let us, however, consider the true meaning of identifiable and personally.  (I think we know enough about the meaning of information.)   As our resource, let’s use: www.webster-dictionary.org

There we find that the definition of identifiable is: Capable of being identified.

We have three potential meanings for personally.  They are:

1.        In a personal manner; by bodily presence; not by representative or substitute.

2.         With respect to an individual.

3.         With respect to one’s individuality.

Let’s put them all together.  Since we have three choices for the definition of personally, we’ll need to look at three potential meanings of Personally Identifiable Information.  They are:

1.         Information that someone can identify in person.  So that’s not right.

2.         Information, with respect to an individual, that can be identified.  That’s closer, but it’s the information that can be identified in this case.  It’s not the person.

3.         Information that can be identified regarding a person’s individuality.  That’s closer still, but no cigar.  Once again, it’s the information that can be identified and not the person.

Conclusion – when talking about privacy, the phrase Personally Identifiable Information makes us look foolish.  Let’s stop.  Let’s say, for example – Personal Identity Information – or something else that actually describes the subject information.  I’ll settle for PII.  It’s not great, but at least it’s not wrong.

One more thing.  In Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty says this to Alice:

“When I use a word” … “It means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

If that’s the type of person you want to be identified with, keep right on saying Personally Identifiable Information.  Just saying.

Please join me in my quest to purge Personally Identifiable Information.

Thanks in advance for your support.


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