What is the ‘personal’ in ‘personal information’?


Contemporary privacy theories and European discussions about data protection employ the notion of ‘personal information’ to designate their areas of concern. The notion of personal information is demarcated from non-personal information—or just information—indicating that we are dealing with a specific kind of information. However, within privacy scholarship the notion of personal information appears undertheorized, rendering the concept somewhat unclear. We argue that in an age of datafication, protection of personal information and privacy is crucial, making the understanding of what is meant by ‘personal information’ more important than ever. To contribute to this aim, we analyse the conception of personal information and its nature, including the distinction between personal and non-personal information from a philosophy of language perspective. Through analyses of aboutness and relative aboutness we point to challenges related to the demarcation between personal and non-personal information, which may in practice lead to all information being personal.

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  1. 1.

    In legal writings, ‘personal information’ is often termed ‘personal data´, however, the meaning of the two notions seems to be the same. Why ‘personal data’ is used rather than ‘personal information’ is not addressed but it might stem from earlier frameworks for data protection. However, as ‘personal data’ in The General Data Protection Regulation (2018) is defined in terms of information (i.e., personal data is information) and as the privacy literature mostly uses the notion ‘personal information’, we stick to the notion of ‘personal information’ throughout this paper. In connection to legal provisions and case law, we use data protection, data processing, etc. and only change data to information in conjunction with the specifier ‘personal’.

  2. 2.

    For an elaboration of the scope and case law related to Art. 8 of the European Convention of Human Rights, see, for example, Europan Court of Human Rights (2018).

  3. 3.

    The Working Party first noted this in document No WP 105, but quotes it again in WP 136 before further elaborating on the meaning of ‘relating to’ in the definition of personal information (Article 29 Data Protection Working Party WP 136, Opinion 4/2007 on the concept of personal data, 2007, p. 10).

  4. 4.

    As already mentioned, in the GDPR, personal information is called personal data. However, as it is defined as ‘any information’, we stick to the use of the notion personal information.

  5. 5.

    Labelled as a “content” element, a “purpose” element, and a “result” element in the Article 29 Data Protection Working Party WP 136 (2007, p. 10).

  6. 6.

    The logical definition of relative aboutness is stated as follows: ‘We have now arrived at a definiens for relative aboutness that is entirely symmetrical with respect to S and Q, and that may be put: S and Q are about k relative to each other if and only if some unitary consequence T of SQ follows differentially with respect to k from SQ but not from either S or Q alone’ (Goodman, 1961, p. 16). It is further specified that ‘relative aboutness is symmetrical with respect to S and Q’ (Goodman 1961, p. 16) and that ‘The relation is non-transitive’ (Goodman 1961, p. 17).


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Thanks to Bjarki Valtýsson, Johan Lau Munkholm and Jesper Pagh for helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.


This research is conducted within the project ‘Don’t Take it Personal’. Privacy and Information in an Algorithmic Age generously funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark, grant number: 8018-00041B.

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Correspondence to Sille Obelitz Søe.

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Søe, S.O., Jørgensen, R.F. & Mai, JE. What is the ‘personal’ in ‘personal information’?. Ethics Inf Technol (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-021-09600-3

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  • Personal information
  • Datafication
  • Relative aboutness
  • Privacy
  • Philosophy of language