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The Courts The Internet

P.I.I. In the Sky 222

Posted by Soulskill
from the not-about-pie-or-pi dept.
Frequent Slashdot contributor Bennett Haselton writes "A judge rules that IP addresses are not 'personally identifiable information' (PII) because they identify computers, not people. That's absurd, but in truth there is no standard definition of PII in the industry anyway, because you don't need one in order to write secure software. Here's a definition of 'PII' that the judge could have adopted instead, to reach the same conclusion by less specious reasoning." Hit the link below to read the rest of his thoughts.

US District Court Judge Richard Jones's recent ruling in Johnson v. Microsoft has been much ridiculed for saying that IP addresses are not "personally identifiable information" (PII) because they identify computers, not individual users. Legions of critics have pointed out that this is like saying home addresses are not PII because they identify houses, not people. And it was pretty silly for Jones to say that "the only reasonable interpretation" of PII would be to exclude IP addresses from the definition — when, as the plaintiffs pointed out, Microsoft's own website defined PII to include IP addresses. (Microsoft has since removed from that definition from their online glossary and replaced with a link to their privacy statement.)

But the open secret in the privacy tech industry is that nobody knows exactly what "personally identifiable information" means anyway, and nobody cares, either. This is not because industry leaders don't care about privacy and security. They do. But being a good, privacy-conscious software architect has nothing to do with nit-picking the details of what counts as PII. If you're designing the new Hotmail, you should just know that passwords should be encrypted when users log in over the Web, that third parties should not be able to query the Hotmail database and harvest e-mail addresses, that users shouldn't be able to extract personal data such as birthdates that are associated with another user's e-mail address, etc. If you don't instinctively know those things already, then memorizing a definition for "PII" is not going to make you a good security-conscious programmer.

Conversely, the major security threats facing Windows users — malware infection through security holes in Windows and Internet Explorer — have nothing to do with the definition of PII or the finer points of Microsoft's privacy policy. There may even be public relations gurus at Microsoft who are glad to see the "IP addresses as PII" controversy in the headlines, if that relatively minor privacy issue distracts the public from the vastly more serious threats posed browser security holes.

There are indeed published definitions of "PII" — the US Office of Management and Budget Memo 07-16 defines PII as:

"information which can be used to distinguish or trace an individual's identity, such as their name, social security number, biometric records, etc. alone, or when combined with other personal or identifying information which is linked or linkable to a specific individual, such as date and place of birth, mother's maiden name, etc."

But that doesn't pass the test of what makes a good definition, which is: If two different people read that definition, and then you gave them an example of a piece of data (such as the school that someone graduated from), would they usually be able to agree on whether that data counts as "PII?" How about IP addresses? From the written definition alone, there's no way to tell for sure.

I actually worked as a contractor at Microsoft at the onset of the PII craze, and in order to commence working on what would eventually become Windows Live, we all had to watch a streaming video about PII, what it was, how to secure it, etc. Near the beginning, the narrator gave some examples of PII, including e-mail addresses, and mentioned that PII should be encrypted when transmitted over the Internet. (I'm not violating any confidentiality; these standards were all publicly released later.) Full of first-week-on-the-job idealism, I looked up the narrator in the company directory and earnestly typed out an e-mail raising some points, such as: Doesn't Hotmail display your e-mail address over an unencrypted connection when you're signed in to Hotmail? And anyway, because the standard e-mail protocols always transmit To: and From: addresses unencrypted over the Internet, how would it ever be possible to "encrypt e-mail addresses in transit" anyway? Wouldn't it make more sense to specify that individual e-mail addresses can be transmitted in the clear one at a time, but if we're ever transferring a large number of them in bulk, it would be wise to encrypt the list, to reduce the chance of it falling into the hands of a spammer?

Then the video kept rolling, and making more statements that seemed to contradict earlier ones, or that were too vague to give me any idea of what I was actually supposed to do in a given situation, and eventually I got the point: We do care about privacy and security. But, there is no algorithm that can determine unambiguously what counts as "PII" or what you're supposed to do in order to safeguard it. You just have to use your common sense and ask around if you're not sure. The main point of the video is to reinforce how important this is, not to impart any actual information.

So Judge Jones could have picked from many possible definitions of "PII," and nobody would be able to call him "wrong," as long as the industry doesn't know what it means, either. What he was really trying to decide was whether Microsoft violated its promise "not to collect PII" during the Windows Update process, because the IP addresses of users doing the downloads were visible to Microsoft's servers. The plaintiffs made some other claims in Johnson v. Microsoft that I think have more merit (basically, arguing that the "Windows Genuine Advantage" anti-piracy tool should not have been foisted on users without their consent as part of the Windows Update process), but on this particular point, I think they were bound to lose on the claim that collecting IP addresses during a download was a privacy violation. After all, if the judge had ruled in their favor on this point, Microsoft would have had to discontinue Windows Update in order to comply with the ruling, and I don't think anybody wants that.

So, maybe Judge Jones just decided that he didn't want to be known as the judge who outlawed Windows security updates, so he determined in advance that he was going to rule that Microsoft did not violate users' privacy by collecting IP addresses during Windows Update. Then he worked backwards from there to find reasoning that supported this conclusion. That's not really how it's supposed to work, but at least he could have had good intentions.

Unfortunately, the reasoning that he hit on was the absurd argument that IP addresses are not PII because they identify computers, not the people who own them. Here's something that he could have said instead:

"I'm not counting IP addresses as PII, because in order to find out who was using an IP address at a particular time, you have to subpoena the ISP. That's what makes them different from names and home addresses, which can be matched to individual people without a subpoena. As long as Microsoft isn't subpoenaing ISPs to find out who was using a particular IP address, for all practical purposes they are not 'personally identifiable.'"

Judge Jones actually started out in that direction by quoting from another case, Klimas v. Comcast Cable Communications, Inc., where the court wrote, "We further note that IP addresses do not in and of themselves reveal 'a subscriber's name, address, [or] social security number.' That information can only be gleaned if a list of subscribers is matched up with a list of their individual IP addresses." And that list matching up subscribers with the IP addresses they were using at a given time, can only be obtained with a subpoena. Jones could have quit while he was ahead and stuck with that reasoning, and he would have avoided all the ridicule that came from his statement about IP addresses.

Or maybe Judge Jones could have just said,

"Look, you don't have a standard definition for PII anyway. You adapt it to each individual situation, in order to determine what privacy protections should be built into each program, by using your common sense. So that's what I'm doing to do in this situation too. And my common sense tells me that having IP addresses visible to Microsoft's servers during the Windows Update process, is not a privacy violation, because that's how downloads work."

That's as good a definition of PII as any. Now let's get back to the real work of stopping Russian porno spammers from pwning our machines in the first place.

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P.I.I. In the Sky

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  • not absurd (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward
    It's not "absurd" to rule that IP addresses are not personally identifiable information from a legal standpoint for one very simple reason--though IP addresses can be PIIs, they are not always PIIs.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by A. B3ttik (1344591)
      How are VINs (Vehicle Identification Numbers) treated?

      Though I guess that would still be more applicable to MAC Addresses than IP Numbers. How are License Plates treated?
      • by Smidge204 (605297)

        The license plate analogy only makes sense if people are required to register their computers/internet enabled appliances as they are with vehicles.

        Even then, the license plate only identifies the car and owner, not the operator. It is entirely possible that a vehicle may be used by someone other than the registered owner.
        =Smidge=

        • by Comboman (895500)

          Even then, the license plate only identifies the car and owner, not the operator. It is entirely possible that a vehicle may be used by someone other than the registered owner.

          Which often doesn't matter. If you loan your car to someone and they get caught by a red light or speed camera, you will get the ticket in the mail and arguing that you weren't the one driving will not get you off (except maybe if you reported the car as stolen).

          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by _avs_007 (459738)
            Which often doesn't matter. If you loan your car to someone and they get caught by a red light or speed camera, you will get the ticket in the mail and arguing that you weren't the one driving will not get you off (except maybe if you reported the car as stolen).

            BS. California statutes define the violator as the operator of the motor vehicle, NOT the registered owner... and yes I have gone to court over a photo radar ticket, where I wasn't driving, and got the ticket dismissed.
      • Having a VIN or a license plate number will not tell you who is in the car. It may give you a good idea, but it can't tell you exactly.
    • thank goodness (Score:5, Informative)

      by goombah99 (560566) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @10:30AM (#28769701)

      Under federal law, all federally owned or federal contractor owned computers now have to protect PII. this means all sorts of niscances on your computer as well as big penalties for you personally if you lose a laptop and the PII as not adequately secured.

      fortunately e-mail addreresses, phone numbers, and yes EVEN names of people are, interestingly not PII. can you image if they were? likewise IP addresses are not PII.

      I think people just don't understand the concept of PII, they mis interepret the ill chosen term. PII is not something that would normally place you at risk if revealed. Sure a spammer could spam you e-mail or DOS your IPaddress but that's not what they mean. If someone knows things associated with your security like your SS ID, that is considered PII.

      I think that the show is on the wrong foot with regard to SS. Basically the SS number has been overloaded with too many uses to the point where you basically have to tell people it, yet you actually are made vulnerable by this. Something needs to be done about SS numbers so they don't have to be PII.

    • by HTH NE1 (675604)

      It's not "absurd" to rule that IP addresses are not personally identifiable information from a legal standpoint for one very simple reason--though IP addresses can be PIIs, they are not always PIIs.

      When I had Internet access in college, the IP addresses assigned to students in the residence halls had DNS records that gave the student's name, the name of the residence hall, and room number. You could request an alternate record be added, but you could not have that information removed. made unavailable to anyone who could run nslookup. I'd expect more such institutions to do the same as a deterrent against sharing of files illegally (they don't have to deal with subpoenas, enough public information is

  • Is this psot personally inedifitable?
    • Is this psot personally inedifitable?

      I know that was meant to be a joke, but in reality that depends on how many people use your account, and whether the information in your account is correct. I can make certain assumptions, but only an investigation would prove the correctness of my assumptions.

      The problem with IP addresses is that if it is static then it could either identify a subnet if NATed or a single computer and then who is to say there isn't more than one person using the machine? If it is dynamic

    • Not the content itself, but your name might be. Are you the Hognoxious of Arkansas?
      • Dang! Forgot to check "Post Anonymously!".

        Where were we? Ah, yes - if you're referring to the Razorbacks fanatic I'm aware of him, but I came up with the name independently.

        • Yeah, I was going to say something about the unhealthy obsession with sports not going along too well with the frequent posting to Slashdot. I'm guessing the amazon profile is you though. Between the programming books on the wish list and the Ayn Rand book, it screams Slashdot subculture.
  • Absurd? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ghrom (883027) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @10:13AM (#28769423)
    Using IP to identify a person responsible for an internet crime is roughly the same as using a car insurance policy owner to identify the runaway killer.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by mea37 (1201159)

      However, that has nothng to do with the case at hand. PII doesn't mean "evidence of who was responsible for some action".

      Knowing that a particular IP address was used in a particular IP violation (har) does not, in and of itself, prove that the Bill Johnson, to whom that address is assigned, committed the crime. In civil court it's a pretty good start, though - and more to the point, something doesn't have to prove a direct connection to be PII.

      What makes the judge's reasoning absurd is, it would apply eq

      • by gfxguy (98788)

        Except that it would be less so if it were an apartment building, for example, unless it included a unit number, if it didn't have the actual name on it.

        Likewise, while your neighbor can steal your mail, it's a lot harder for you neighbor to, for example, subscribe to a porno magazine and have it delivered to your address and successfully steal just that porno from your mailbox on the exact day that it shows up just to avoid embarrassment, than it is to steal someone's wifi.

        In fact, neighbors don't often sh

        • by mea37 (1201159)

          You know what, go read the background of the case. None of the points you're raising have anything to do with the actual material being discussed. It is not about proving that someone is responsible for a given action.

          As for your belief that an address sans apartment number wouldn't be PII - not so in the medical industry (as one example). In fact, a ZIP code can often be considered PII.

  • "A judge rules that IP addresses are not 'personally identifiable information' (PII) because they identify computers, not people. That's absurd,

    I think that is not absurd. IP's could be utterly random, changed by anything... there's no process or standard or central authority or anything that guarantees that its even your computer. In order for you to have a computer identifer that is legally bound to you, you have to go through a quasi government process that has

    a) the applicant providing proof of identification
    b) the register validating that identification and issuing the ip to the person...
    c) payment or proof of payments to associate the identification with the applicant.
    d) finally, the ip should remain the property of the applicant, but, the government should track transfers.

    If you did all that, then, yes, you might say the ip belongs to a person, because that's the only process that can eliminate reasonable doubt.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Em Emalb (452530)

      what can they use? What's the one thing that never changes? Even Mac addresses can change, just replace the hardware.

      It's tough. However, in most cases, unless the ISP does something, the average home user will get the same DHCP IP address for as long as they leave their computer on and it can auto-renew.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by FlyingBishop (1293238)

      If you read the whole article (why would you do that, I know) he gets into that in the end.

      What he's saying is that if it does identify a computer, it's patently absurd to say that that does not necessarily identify a person. An address does not necessarily identify a person either, just a house. But it remains PII.

      If you did all that, then, yes, you might say the ip belongs to a person, because that's the only process that can eliminate reasonable doubt.

      Actually, the courts have already ruled (in the Jammi

    • by Grond (15515) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @10:32AM (#28769721) Homepage

      Reasonable doubt may be the standard in American criminal cases, but it is not the standard in a civil case such as the one being discussed here. In an American civil case the usual standard is preponderance of the evidence, which is a 'more likely than not' or '50% + 1' standard.

      Thus, for households in which the computer is used primarily by one adult, an IP address is personally identifiable in that knowing the IP address (in conjunction with information from the ISP) makes it more likely than not that the adult in question was using the computer at the time the transaction with that IP was logged. The problem is that many households have multiple computers and/or multiple users and information from the ISP is necessary to tie an IP to an individual or household. So Microsoft, which had only the IP addresses, did not have personally identifiable information.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Opportunist (166417)

        No, but in that case it's likely that simply ALL the computers in the household are to be confiscated and examined. This way or that, the IP address finally leads to the person who did it. It may not be personally identifyable, but it leads to a small enough subset that searching all of the individuals becomes feasible.

        That's like saying there's a culprit in that bar, let's search everyone for the weapon.

      • by tjstork (137384)

        households...

        So, could I not spoof somebody else's IP address so long as they are on my subnet?

        What if somebody spoofs mine?

        I don't think its so clear cut.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

          In court, and especially in civil cases, far-fetched allegations - like "what if someone spoofed my ip? - are discarded without any evidence suggesting that. In a criminal case, knowing a guy who has told you about doing that sort of thing would lead to an investigation and maybe some evidence and further investigation. In a civil case, you don't just have to introduce doubt, you have to introduce enough doubt that it is more likely than not someone else who did it.

          That's hard to do when it is your person

      • by mea37 (1201159)

        Aaaand the standards for what is PII are even looser. Even something that is insufficient as proof of identity in a civil case could still be PII. This is not a story about someone introducing an IP address as evidence of responsibility for wrongdoing in a trial. It is a case about whether MS violated its privacy policy by collecting IP address information.

        This information is present in the summary, and quite evident in TFA. It's also spelled out in the previous article on the matter. It's been repeate

    • I also think Jones failed to touch on the usable life span of a IP address and nuances of a IP address. Critics compared an IP to a home address fails to consider these major points. A house address changes hands slowly(Weeks). IP addresses can change hands every minute(or less) if the user desired to have that ability. As well, proxies could be likened to PO boxes making them completely unidentifiable. Unfortunately its not clear when an IP address has been used as an proxy making everything much more chao
      • by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

        While that is certainly possible, that is rarely the way it actually happens. It is a bit far fetched to think you will be able to convince a jury that what is possible, but not practical and may not even be feasable, is actually what happened in your case. It would take a good deal of real evidence suggesting such, evidence that probably doesn't exist because it never happened.

        A great many people have a permanent or near permanent static IP address from their ISP. Also, when an IP address is dynamic, us

  • NAT (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Joe U (443617) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @10:20AM (#28769529) Homepage Journal

    I share a NAT connection with over 50 other desks at work, most of them are not in the same company. Is my IP address PII?

    • by 0racle (667029)
      You share a building with 50 other desks at work, most of them are not the same company. Is that buildings address PII?

      Is your home address?
      • by Joe U (443617)

        Work office building, no. Work office building, with office and desk number, yes.

        Apartment building, no. Apartment building and apartment number, yes.

        • by mea37 (1201159)

          Where privacy law is concerned, you are wrong. You're making assumptions about how closely information has to lead someone to you to be PII, and those assumptions don't conform to the meaning of the term.

          In some contexts, even ZIP code alone can be PII.

          • by Joe U (443617)

            I'm basing my assumptions on that, while yes, a zip could could in theory personally identify me when combined with other information, there's no chance it would be able to on its own. I think the same applies to IP addresses.

            • by mea37 (1201159)
              Maybe. Now go read the definition of PII as it pertains to privacy law, and you will see that you've just agreed that an IP address could be PII, regardless of NAT.
    • by Talderas (1212466)

      I work in Indiana, but I believe my IP address shows my place of work to be residing in Arizona. In fact, we don't own any property in Arizona.

  • by Assmasher (456699) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @10:20AM (#28769533) Journal

    Seriously, the IP address of a computer in your public library, or a school, or in a house with more than one person, how is that personally identifiable information? Talk about absurd...

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by ceoyoyo (59147)

      Sounds like a fantastic precedent to me. The only thing the RIAA has to identify the people they sue are IP addresses. The judge said IP addresses cannot be used to identify people. You can't sue a computer. This is a wookie. Case closed.

      • by mea37 (1201159)

        Context, people.

        The flip side of what I've posted a dozen times elsewhere: Just because something isn't PII, wouldn't mean that it necessarily can't be used as evidence in a trial (especially at the standard for evidence in a civil case).

        This is a case about privacy law, not standards of evidence. The two are essentially unrelated.

    • by aztektum (170569)

      I'm all for using the IP address of my neighbors open wifi as PII for my illicit activities :D

  • ... if they don't collect the IP address of the computer requesting the update? Just send it to "the internet" and hope that the routers magically send it to the right computer? Multicast? TOR-WGA?

    The real protection of privacy should (IMHO) come from the fact that your ISP ought to require a court order anytime someone wants to look through their DHCP records to match an IP address with a real person. If they don't, then you should take a very hard look at their policy for discretionary (aka, non-legally c

  • by Alpha830RulZ (939527) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @10:22AM (#28769571)

    I think the judge is correct. If your car was leaving a crime scene, and the license plate were noted, your defense attorney would correctly note that someone else could have been driving the car. If your IP address is noted doing something nefarious, your lawyer would again correctly note that someone else could have been using the computer. That indicates that the information isn't uniquely identifying.

    PII isusually the information that uniquely identifies a person. Name, SSN, and birthdate are the holy trinity of PII, with account numbers for a business close behind. The data security droids usually lump in address and phone, but I think that's an error in reasoning because of the above observation. I think they could correctly be described as sensitive, and certainly businesses and developers should treat them as such. But I don't think addresses and phone numbers are deserving of the protection that your name, birthdate and SSN get, because you can't go open a checking account in my name just by knowing my address.

    • by plague3106 (71849)

      Can they though? I believe I read that if you claim that someone else was using your car, YOU need to provide information on who... since its your property, its your responsiblity to know where it is. So if you get a knock at the door, and your car is still in your driveway and was never reported stolen, if you're going to claim it wasn't you, you'd better know who it was.

    • by JustinOpinion (1246824) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @11:00AM (#28770057)
      I fully agree that name/birthday/SSN are "more important" PII than, say, a phone number. But the reason PII is defined more broadly is that the dangers are broad. The dangers are not only due to being accused of a crime or sued. Or identity theft.

      For instance, if a medical record were leaked that said "John Smith, DOB: 01-05-1970 has lung cancer" that would be bad because it includes personally-identifying information, so everyone knows Mr.Smith's personal medical information. But a leaked medical record that said "person with phone number 260-555-1234 has lung cancer" isn't much better. Sure phone numbers don't match 1:1 to people, but the 2nd example I gave of leaked information would be just as damaging, to the person, as the first, since the phone number reveals the identity of the person. Not uniquely, perhaps, but close enough for it to be a problem (close enough for someone unscrupulous to do damage, unfairly discriminate, use for identity theft, damage reputation, etc.).

      Again, this is why PII has to be defined fairly broadly: because a combination of even fairly innocuous data (even something quasi-public, like your phone number) with more sensitive data can be damaging. The extent to which these arguments apply also to IP addresses (which are, generally, not listed) is debatable.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by 2obvious4u (871996)
      I don't care who has my SSN, since I have to give it out all the time to pretty much anyone who asks.
      The only PII that really matters is my bank account. It is all about following the money, who cares who you are as long as you can pay for whatever it is you want. SSN is almost like a public key.
    • by pjt33 (739471)

      But I don't think addresses and phone numbers are deserving of the protection that your name, birthdate and SSN get, because you can't go open a checking account in my name just by knowing my address.

      Sure, but can you open one without giving your address?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    ... what I've seen working for the USDA. We have a program that allows loan officers to run what-if scenarios on a farmer's finances to see if they qualify for loan servicing that would lower their payments on their government debt, minimize the loss to the government. In order to identify a borrower we use their tax-id. We were displaying the last four digits to help a loan officer identify the correct borrower when there are multiple people with the same name living in the same county. A recent policy

  • Not true. (Score:2, Interesting)

    by chipmeister (802507)
    My home address is not randomly assigned to me every time I come home from work. Plus, there is quite a bit of information around mortgages, tax documents, etc that tie me to my home address. Sorry, but the link between IP address and a person is pretty weak. Under certain circumstances it may be possible to prove a link between IP and PII. But as a general rule it is not as strong as home address.
    • by Tony Hoyle (11698)

      Neither are most peoples IP addresses, unless they're on dialup. Dynamic IP made sense when IPs had 200 dialup ports and 2000 users, but not in these days of 24/7 connections... if you never disconnect your IP isn't changing so why make it dynamic in the first place?

      If you whois'd my home IP you'd find my name, address and telephone number. It most definately does identify me. At the very least your IP is going to determine your ISP who can tell you exactly who was using that IP at the time.

  • Legally tracking? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Matt_Bennett (79107) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @10:24AM (#28769613) Homepage Journal

    Does this mean that illegal activity originating from an IP address tied to me cannot be used in court as evidence against me? (Like in the RIAA cases?)

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Beerdood (1451859)

      Does this mean that illegal activity originating from an IP address tied to me cannot be used in court as evidence against me? (Like in the RIAA cases?)

      Before any of the software pirates / MAFIAA haters start cheering, there's plenty of other evidence to personally identify a user. In the Jammie Thomas case for example, she used the same username that she always had, had a password protected PC and was the only one that had access etc... So I doubt this ruling will make a difference in this case

      However, if the IP address is the ONLY piece of evidence linking a file sharer (or some more serious criminal activity i.e. child porn, identify theft, scam ar

  • If we're talking about what information a corporation is allowed to collect, sell, etc from its customers without authorization, then IP addresses are not personally identifiable.

    If, on the other hand, we're talking about the ability of RIAA or MPAA plaintiffs to identify someone as engaging in copyright infringement, then IP addresses always identify a particular person who is responsible.

  • The more absurd thing would be comparing an ip address to a home address. Unlike a home address, an ip address can not be easily spoofed. Nor does can it change on the flip of a coin. Although service providers usually continuously reassign the ip address through DHCP, doesn't mean they always do. Ip addresses don't even identify computers, they identify devices on the network. Today, routers and hubs are used almost everywhere, meaning that the ip address isn't even identifying the computer it is identify
  • Not "absurd" (Score:3, Informative)

    by wcrowe (94389) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @10:30AM (#28769703)

    "A judge rules that IP addresses are not 'personally identifiable information' (PII) because they identify computers, not people. That's absurd..."

    Absurd? Sorry, call me absurd too then. I have to agree with the judge, sort of. An IP address identifies a node on a network, not necessarily a computer, but I believe the judge is correct in pointing out that they do not identify people.

    • An IP address identifies a node on a network, not necessarily a computer, but I believe the judge is correct in pointing out that they do not identify people.

      The 'node'(eg. a cisco router) is technically a computer as well(for layman, court purposes).

  • by Draque (1367509) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @10:31AM (#28769717)
    I believe the author of this article misunderstands the motivations of the judge. This case seems to me to have very little to do with Microsoft and their security updates and everything about the judge wanting to set a legal precedent for future, unrelated cases. If he had ruled that an IP address was P.I.I., it would mean that a person could be found guilty of crimes, held civilly responsible for transactions and a whole slew of other things based entirely on the IP address of the computer that had acted online. Although an IP is a very good clue as to who might have been acting online, it is *only* a clue.
    • by pjt33 (739471)

      My date of birth and mother's maiden name don't uniquely identify me either. In fact I'd give good odds that the tuple (name, father's name, mother's name, date of birth, city of birth) doesn't form a unique identifier. That doesn't make them not PII (or "personal data" for those of us in the EU).

      • by Tweenk (1274968)

        The problem is that personal data is not personally identifiable information! The converse is true but this is not.

        "Personal data" is anything that gives a clue about your identity. Personally identifiable information is a piece or set of data that identifies you uniquely, with negligible possibility of error or ambiguity. The difference is vast. Your name is personal data but it is not personally identifiable information, because there might be hundreds of people called John Smith. Personal bank account nu

        • by pjt33 (739471)

          Your name is personal data but it is not personally identifiable information

          You seem to be contradicting the quotation from US Office of Management and Budget Memo 07-16 that was in the summary:

          "information which can be used to distinguish or trace an individual's identity, such as their name, social security number, biometric records, etc. alone, or when combined with other personal or identifying information which is linked or linkable to a specific individual, such as date and place of birth, mother's maiden name, etc."

          That definition is all I had to work from, and I hope you'd agree with me that it looks a lot more like a definition of personal data than what you're defining as PII.

      • Even your name and home address doesn't necessarily uniquely identify you. It's possible to have two people with the same name living at the same address (Jr./Sr. for example).
  • Really? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by argStyopa (232550) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @10:34AM (#28769731) Journal

    How is that "absurd"?

    PII requires a 1:1 matchup with a PERSON.
    In the course of a single day or week, how many people use a single external IP address at an Internet Cafe?

    I think the ruling is correct - PII is no more personally-identifying than the street address of (possibly) an apartment building.

    • by canajin56 (660655)
      It doesn't require a 1:1 matchup. You can have two bank accounts, that doesn't mean that since it's a 2:1 matching, that it doesn't identify you anymore! And you can have a joint account, so that's a 1:2 matching, and it still identifies you pretty damn well. Plus, it most certainly does have a 1:1 matchup if the ISP logs DHCP assignments for a reasonable length of time. The ISP knows the account # it was assigned to, and therefore knows the customer it was assigned to. Who cares if they are the one us
  • by Grond (15515) on Tuesday July 21, 2009 @10:49AM (#28769931) Homepage

    The author suggests this:

    "Look, you don't have a standard definition for PII anyway. You adapt it to each individual situation, in order to determine what privacy protections should be built into each program, by using your common sense. So that's what I'm doing to do in this situation too. And my common sense tells me that having IP addresses visible to Microsoft's servers during the Windows Update process, is not a privacy violation, because that's how downloads work."

    There are several problems with this. First, reliance on common sense and deference to the individual situation creates uncertainty, which in turn invites litigation. Such non-rules create problem spaces that can only be mapped through large amounts of expensive trial and error. Well defined rules eliminate uncertainty and discourage litigation by making the result obvious from the outset.

    Second, this is a district court case. The district judge is concerned with the specific problem in front of him or her: are IP addresses personally identifiable information or not. The district court has neither the time nor the need (nor the authority, really) to create rules with broad scope.

    Third, this case isn't about the meaning of 'personally identifiable information' generally. It's about the meaning of the phrase within the Windows XP End User License Agreement. The ruling is about construing the language of a contract, not privacy law as such.

    Fourth, this is a federal court case dealing with a state contract law issue, in this case the law of the state of Washington (note the judge's citations to Washington contract cases like Seabed Harvesting v. Dep't of Natural Resources and Elliott Bay Seafoods v. Port of Seattle). When dealing with a state law claim, the federal courts are supposed to apply the law of the state as it would be applied by a state court; they are not empowered to make new state law. Erie Railroad v. Tompkins. Thus, it would be wrong for a federal court to make broad statements about the meaning of the term 'personally identifiable information' in contracts under Washington state law. Instead, the judge did the right thing and addressed only the specific problem at hand.

  • If the judge was presiding over a DMCA case, and ruled that IP addresses didn't constitute personally identifiable information and therefore wouldn't support an RIAA subpoena, the same exact people ridiculing the judge here would completely reverse their decision and praise the decision.
  • I reject the author's premise that programmers don't need to care about the definition of PII. It's true that PII is a different issue from technical application security, but that's like saying that because fuel efficiency isn't crash safety auto engineers don't have to worry about fuel efficiency.

    (You know you wanted a car analogy.)

    It would be correct to say that PII is a business concern rather than a technical one, but I for one don't trust software developers who don't understand their business.

    The co

  • Doesn't this provide a handy precedent against the RIAA?

    If IP's aren'[t personally identifiable, as a matter of legal precedence, then isn't trying to tie a person to an ip de facto not possible?

    Seems to me the courts can't have it both ways.

  • Answer the following: I have a total of 8 computers turned on and active in my home. Two of those computers are virtualized on one server. Including me, I have 3 adults living here at home. Please tell me specifically which one of us 3 adults is at which computer, whether or not they are using a virtual machine, a laptop or one of my servers, and at what time of day we're using the PC based only on the IP address leased by my router.

  • An IP address does only identify a computer (for dynamic IP addresses it's not even enough - you also need the time+date), not a person.

    Tying an IP address to a person rather than computer requires that you have separate evidence tying the person to the computer at that time. Of course if it's a static IP address in a private home (as opposed to library, or other public place), it does rather narrow down who may have been using it (once you've proved it wasn't being spoofed).

    Of course given that IP addresse

  • I believe that if programmers are told that PII is important to think about, then they will care. And they should be told that it is important.

    The problem with a definition of "PII" is that the term kind of implies that it is information that can identify a person. That is not the real issue. The problem is that it is usually the correlations across information that are used to identify people. Thus, PII is really about the whether the data (the "information") can be correlated with other available informa

  • TO add to the confusion, IMO, PII rules were introduced for 2 main reasons.

    1) Identity theft
    2) Harassment

    The previously mentioned holy trinity of ID - name, DOB, gov id (SIN, SS, etc) are valuable tools to impersonate someone - typically for illegal financial gain. Into this bucket was added information like credit card numbers (I believe in Canada it is now illegal for merchants to throw out credit card slips that contain the full number - they must be shredded), bank account numbers, etc.

    Addresses and pho

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