Safeguarding Personally Identifiable Information | 08 Feb 2024

For Prelims: Personally Identifiable Information, Computer Emergency Response Team of India (CERT-In), Social Engineering Attacks, Privacy, Cybercrime, Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023, Extended detection and response (XDR) tools.

For Mains: Data Breach, Cyber Crime, Related Challenges and Measures to Deal with it.

Source: TH

Why in News?

Recently, the Ministry of Corporate Affairs fixed a critical vulnerability in its online portal after a cybersecurity researcher reported it to the Computer Emergency Response Team of India (CERT-In).

What is Personally Identifiable Information (PII)?

  • About:
    • PII is any data or information maintained by an organisation or agency that can potentially be used to identify a specific individual.
      • This could include information such as Aadhaar, PAN, voter identity, passport, date of birth, contact number, communication address, and biometric information.
    • The constituents of PII vary depending on an individual’s home country.
  • Types of PII:
    • PII comes in two types: direct identifiers and indirect identifiers.
      • Direct identifiers are unique to a person and include things like a passport number or driver's license number.
        • A single direct identifier is typically enough to determine someone's identity.
      • Indirect identifiers are not unique. They include more general personal details like race and place of birth. While a single indirect identifier can't identify a person, a combination can.
  • Sensitive vs. Non-sensitive PII:
    • Among PII, some pieces of information are more sensitive than others.
    • Sensitive PII:
      • It is sensitive information that directly identifies an individual and could cause significant harm if leaked or stolen.
      • Sensitive PII is typically not publicly available, and most existing data privacy laws require organizations to safeguard it by encrypting it, controlling who accesses it, or taking other cybersecurity measures.
    • Non-sensitive PII:
      • It is personal data that, in isolation, would not cause significant harm to a person if leaked or stolen.
        • It may or may not be unique to a person.
      • For example, a social media handle would be non-sensitive PII. It could identify someone, but a malicious actor couldn't commit identity theft armed with only a social media account name.
      • This also includes information such as zip code, race, gender, and religion. They cannot be used to accurately identify an individual.
  • Non PII:
    • Non-personally identifiable information (non-PII) is data that cannot be used on its own to trace, or identify a person. However, non-PII in tandem with additional information can be used to identify an individual.
      • Non-PII information includes photographic images (especially of the face or other identifying characteristics), place of birth, religion, geographic indicators, employment information, educational qualifications, and medical records.

What are the Risks of PII Exposure?

  • Identity Theft:
    • PII exposure increases the risk of identity theft, where criminals use stolen personal information to impersonate individuals for fraudulent activities.
    • Cyberattacks and weaknesses in digital infrastructure can lead to the exposure of citizens’ PII.
  • Financial Fraud:
    • Exposed PII, such as bank account numbers or credit card information, can lead to financial fraud.
      • Criminals may access bank accounts, make unauthorized transactions, commit payment fraud, and siphon funds from accounts allotted to beneficiaries of government welfare programmes, resulting in financial loss for the victim.
  • Privacy Violations:
    • PII exposure can violate privacy, compromising individuals' confidentiality and autonomy.
      • Unauthorized access to personal information can result in stalking, harassment, or intrusion into individuals' private lives.
  • Phishing and Social Engineering Attacks:
    • Cybercriminals may use exposed PII to conduct phishing attacks, tricking individuals into disclosing further sensitive information or clicking on malicious links.
      • Social engineering attacks, such as impersonation scams or pretexting, exploit exposed PII to manipulate individuals into revealing confidential data or granting unauthorized access.
  • Data Breach Fallout:
    • PII exposure often occurs through data breaches, leading to significant financial losses, remediation costs, and damage to the organization's reputation.
      • Organizations may suffer from diminished customer trust, decreased revenue, and increased scrutiny from regulators and stakeholders.
  • Reputation Damage:
    • Exposure of sensitive PII, such as compromising photos or personal messages, can damage individuals' reputations and relationships.
      • Information leaked online may be used for blackmail, extortion, or public humiliation, leading to social and professional consequences.

Instances of Data Breach in Past:

  • CoWIN Data Breach Allegations:
    • Reports emerged about a Telegram bot returning the personal data of Indian citizens registered on the CoWIN portal.
      • A similar data breach was reported when an American cybersecurity company claimed the PII of 815 million Indian citizens, including Aadhaar numbers and passport details, were being sold on the dark web.
      • The Indian government denied allegations of biometric data leaks and CoWIN portal breaches and stated that the CoWIN website is safe and has adequate safeguards for data privacy.
  • Aadhaar:
    • Aadhaar data leaks were also reported in 2018, 2019, and 2022, with three instances of large-scale leaks being reported, including one in which farmer’s data stored on the PM Kisan website was made available on the dark web.
  • RailYatri Platform Data Breach:
    • A data breach was also reported in the RailYatri platform in January 2023.
  • Increase in Cyberattacks on Government and Essential Services:
    • Additionally, 67% of Indian government and essential services organisations experienced over a 50% increase in disruptive cyberattacks, a report from Resecurity (an American cybersecurity company) said.
    • Furthermore, a survey of 200 IT decision-makers noted that 45% of Indian businesses experienced more than a 50% increase in cyberattacks.

Provisions Related to Data Governance in India:

  • Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021.
  • Justice K. S. Puttaswamy (Retd) vs Union of India 2017.
  • Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023:
    • Regulates the processing of personal data in India. The act applies to both online and offline data collection and processing, including activities outside India if they involve offering goods or services in India.
  • Computer Emergency Response Team - India (CERT-In):
    • In the Information Technology Amendment Act 2008, CERT-In has been designated to serve as the national agency to perform several functions in the area of cyber security: Collection, analysis and dissemination of information on cyber incidents also issue alerts on cybersecurity incidents.
      • It is an organisation of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
      • CERT-In's objectives include: Preventing cyber attacks against the country's cyberspace, Responding to cyber attacks and minimizing damage and recovery.

What are the Challenges in Protecting PII?

  • Diverse Sources:
    • PII may be stored and processed across multiple locations due to the growth of cloud computing and SaaS services.
  • Increasing Data Volume:
    • The amount of sensitive data stored in public clouds is projected to double by 2024, posing challenges in ensuring its security.
  • Evolving Threat Landscape:
  • Complex Regulatory Environment:
    • Organizations must navigate different data privacy regulations and tailor their protection measures accordingly.

Way Forward

  • Encryption:
    • Employ encryption techniques to protect PII, regardless of the data's state whether it is at rest in a database, in transit across the internet, or even in use.
  • Identity and Access Management (IAM):
    • Utilize two-factor or multifactor authentication and zero-trust architecture (ZTA) to limit access to sensitive data.
      • ZTA is based on the principle of “never trust, always verify.” It requires organisations to verify the identity of each user and continuously monitor user behaviour for malicious activity.
  • Training:
    • Provide employees with training on handling and protecting PII, including anti-phishing and social engineering awareness.
  • Anonymization:
    • Anonymize sensitive data to remove identifying characteristics.
  • Cybersecurity Tools:
    • Deploy data loss prevention (DLP) and extended detection and response (XDR) tools for tracking and detecting PII misuse.
      • XDR tools are security tools that gather data from across a network and manage automated responses to threats.
  • Collaboration and Partnerships:
    • Collaborate with cybersecurity experts, regulatory bodies, and industry peers to stay informed about emerging threats and best practices in PII protection.

UPSC Civil Services Examination, Previous Year Questions (PYQs) 


Q1. ‘Right to Privacy’ is protected under which Article of the Constitution of India? (2021)

(a) Article 15
(b) Article 19
(c) Article 21
(d) Article 29

Ans: (c)

Q.2 In India, it is legally mandatory for which of the following to report on cyber security incidents? (2017)

  1. Service providers
  2. Data centres
  3. Body corporate

Select the correct answer using the code given below:

(a) 1 only
(b) 1 and 2 only
(c) 3 only
(d) 1, 2 and 3

Ans: (d)


Q. What are the different elements of cyber security ? Keeping in view the challenges in cyber security, examine the extent to which India has successfully developed a comprehensive National Cyber Security Strategy. (2022)