Personal Data vs. Sensitive Data: What is the Difference?

Personal data vs. Sensitive Data - Difference and Importance
People often confuse personal data and sensitive data. So what is the difference?

Technology is increasingly important in our homes, businesses, and personal devices. As a result, we are generating more personal data than ever before. But what is personal data? How do they differ from sensitive data? Why are corporations so insistent on collecting even a tiny fraction of this user data, and why is your online data so expensive? This article examines the differences between personal data vs. sensitive data, the laws that affect it, and how handling sensitive information acts on your Privacy Policy’s content.

Personal data vs. Sensitive Data – General Terms

The digital industry is a treasure trove of sensitive information. Organizations today rely on collecting and storing sensitive and personal information to perform business-critical operations. Typically, such data includes collecting credit card payments, completing bank transactions, and tracking packages. Fortunately for consumers, however, numerous regulatory bodies worldwide have recognized the confidentiality of such data. As a result, regulators are enforcing various data privacy laws such as GDPR, HIPAA, NESA, CCPA, and many others to protect the integrity and confidentiality of such personal data. Thus, companies that collect, store, or process personal data are legally required to take the necessary measures to protect personal data.

Personal data and sensitive data comparison image
Personal data vs. sensitive data comparison

The fine line between personal and confidential information

Is sensitive data the same as personal data? No, sensitive data has more stringent requirements that must be met for the organization to process it. In turn, the conditions for processing personal data are different. In a nutshell, personal data includes data that identifies an individual. Full names, birthdays, telephone numbers, home addresses, email addresses, and bank details fall under personal information. It is standard procedure for most apps and websites to collect this data, as it is required to make payments or support subscriptions.

Confidential information is personal information whose disclosure could leave an individual vulnerable to discrimination or harassment. While laws generally protect personal information, they pay particular attention to sensitive information because of its potential impact on an individual’s livelihood, quality of life, and capacity to engage in everyday tasks. It would seem simple, and that’s the end, but if it was so simple, why would people pay so much attention to it, right?

What is Personal Data?

We may define personal data as any information we can use to identify an individual. As mentioned above, this includes name, number, address, age, email ID, etc. In addition, even personal data that categorizes your presence, such as CCTV footage, fingerprints or biometric prints, eye scans, etc., can be part of the information. Even data or information combined with other relevant information can lead to the identification of an individual, which can be classified as personal data.

However, it is essential to note that not all data can be personal. For example, a name itself only becomes personal data when that piece of information is combined with data such as last name and phone number to identify an individual accurately. Organizations typically collect and store several pieces of information about data subjects, and this information can be considered personal data if they are put together to identify the data subject. Some of the most common examples of personal data include first and last names, home addresses, email addresses, ID numbers, location data, Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, etc.

What is Sensitive Personal Data?

Sensitive personal data refers to a particular category of personal data that requires additional security and special processing requirements. According to the GDPR, sensitive personal data includes:

  • Political opinions
  • Religious or philosophical beliefs
  • Racial or ethnic origin
  • The genetic information about an individual’s inherited or acquired traits
  • Trade union membership
  • Sexual orientation or sex life
  • Biometric data such as fingerprints
  • Data about a person’s physical or mental health

The General Data Protection Regulation outlines guidelines for collecting and processing sensitive personal data of EU citizens. There are separate rules for controllers and processors handling special categories of data. Processing such data poses risks to human rights. Therefore, additional security measures are necessary to protect sensitive personal data.

Obtaining consent and rules for storing sensitive personal data

A common misconception about the GDPR is that organizations need consent to process personal data. However, consent is only one of six lawful grounds for processing personal data. Explicit consent is required for sensitive personal data. Organizations that haven’t thoroughly studied compliance requirements risk getting some problems; enforcement action, regulatory fines, and loss of customers. The UK’s Data Protection Act (DPA) provides guidelines for storing sensitive personal data. Hard copies must be stored in a locked drawer or filing cabinet. Digital files containing sensitive personal data must be encrypted and stored in a folder with limited access controls. Additional conditions, safeguards, and exemptions are outlined in Schedule 1, Part 1.

The GDPR official website screenshot
The GDPR official website

Sensitive data exposure

Organizations and companies can expose sensitive data when the database storing the information is inadequately protected due to weak encryption, software errors, or employee mistakes. This can include healthcare and medical information, bank data such as account details, financial status, passwords or pin codes, home or work address, and contacts. Data exposure differs from data breaches, where communication is accessed without consent or authorization. In data breaching, personally identifiable information such as name, contact details, bank account number and statements, and ATM pin is used by hackers to misuse data and gain money.

Differents for data security, privacy and compliance

The difference between personal and sensitive data lies in the level of harm that can result from exposure. For example, crooks can use personal data for spamming, phishing, or identity theft. In contrast, sensitive data can lead to more severe and private consequences, such as financial loss, medical identity theft, or reputational damage. Using sensitive data, hackers can inflict damage to you personally. Legal implications concerning collecting, using, and disclosing personal and sensitive data differ. Under HIPAA, laws protect explicit categories of sensitive data, such as health data. Personal data becomes sensitive to specific types or attributes that require special protection due to their potential impact on an individual’s privacy, security, or fundamental rights. The distinction between personal and sensitive data may vary based on legal frameworks and contexts. However, three standard criteria can classify personal data as sensitive: sensitive categories, contextual sensitivity, and potential for harm.

An organization needs to understand and classify the types of data it collects. Once you know the subtle differences between personal and sensitive data, you can review your obligations under GDPR. You can protect confidential and sensitive personal data based on the type of data processed. This knowledge will enable you to secure data and take appropriate steps to conserve all sensitive information to prevent incidents of a breach.

By Stephanie Adlam

I write about how to make your Internet browsing comfortable and safe. The modern digital world is worth being a part of, and I want to show you how to do it properly.

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