The Data Protection Officer (DPO) Role Under the GDPR

What is a data protection officer?

Data protection officers (DPOs) are responsible for monitoring an organisation’s compliance with data protection obligations, informing the organisation of these obligations, and acting as a contact point for data subjects and the relevant supervisory authority.

Not every organisation is required to appoint a DPO, but they must assess whether they need to, taking into account legal requirements such as avoiding conflicts of interest.

Data protection courses and DPO services

Alongside our sister company GRCI Law, we offer a variety of products and services to help your organisation comply with GDPR, including outsourced solutions, complementary support, and certified training.

Our certified GDPR training courses provide a structured learning path that gives data protection and information security professionals the specialist knowledge and skills they need to deliver GDPR compliance.

DPO as a service, delivered by GRCI Law, provides an outsourced DPO for organisations that do not have the internal resource to fulfil the role.

The DPO’s role and responsibilities

Articles 37-39 of the GDPR set out requirements for DPOs, including when one must be appointed (Article 37), the nature of their position in the organization (Article 38), and their tasks (Article 39).

Infringements of these articles can result in lower-level administrative fines of up to 2% of annual global turnover or €10 million. Therefore, it is important to meet DPO obligations correctly and in full.

The DPO's tasks

The tasks that DPOs are required to perform, as mentioned in the GDPR, are as follows:

  • Informing and advising the organisation and its employees of their data protection obligations under the GDPR.
  • Monitoring the organisation’s compliance with the GDPR, other data protection legislation and internal data protection policies and procedures.
  • Advising on the necessity of data protection impact assessments (DPIAs), the manner of their implementation and outcomes.
  • Serving as the contact point to the data protection authorities for all data protection issues, including data breach reporting.
  • Serving as the contact point for individuals (data subjects) on privacy matters, including subject access requests.

Appointing a Data Protection Officer

When do I need to appoint a DPO?

The appointment of a DPO under the GDPR is only mandatory in three situations:

  1. When your organisation is a public authority or body;
  2. If your core activities require regular and systematic monitoring of data subjects on a large scale; or
  3. If your core activities involve large-scale processing of special categories of personal data and data relating to criminal convictions.

There is also scope with the Regulation for each EU member state to specify other circumstances in which a DPO needs to be appointed. For example, data protection laws in Germany require every organisation with ten or more employees that permanently process personal data to appoint a DPO.

The newly published Irish Data Protection Act 2018 allows the Minister for Justice and Equality in Ireland, in consultation with the Irish Data Protection Commission, to extend the categories of controllers and processors required to designate a DPO.

Even where the GDPR does not explicitly require the appointment of a DPO, it is highly encouraged by the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) as a matter of good practice and to demonstrate compliance.

It is important to note that an organisation that appoints a DPO voluntarily must still comply with the full range of DPO requirements in the GDPR.

Do I have to appoint a DPO internally?

The GDPR allows organisations to choose whether to appoint an internal or external DPO. The DPO may be a permanent staff member (internal) or acting under a service contract (external).

A DPO must be given the necessary resources to fulfil their tasks. Similarly, you need to consider the level of support your DPO may need to carry out their duties adequately.

With a shortage of individuals trained to handle the specific DPO responsibilities, outsourcing these tasks and duties can help your organisation address the compliance demands of the GDPR while staying focused on core business activities.

Whatever the decision, IT Governance and GRCI Law can help your organisation fulfil the DPO role with outsourced solutions, training for internal development and support services.

Learn more about DPO as a service

Critical considerations for the DPO role

What are the legal requirements for the DPO role?

  • Independence

The GDPR requires that the DPO operates independently and without their employer's instruction over how they carry out their DPO tasks. This includes instructions on what result should be achieved, how to investigate a complaint or whether to consult the Data Protection Commission. Organisations also cannot tell their DPO how to interpret data protection law.

  • No conflicts of interest

Although the GDPR allows DPOs to “fulfil other tasks and duties”, organisations are obliged to ensure that these do not result in a “conflict of interest” with the DPO duties. Most senior positions within an organisation are likely to cause a conflict (e.g. CEO, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, chief medical officer, head of marketing, head of HR and head of IT).

Do you need qualifications to be a data protection officer?

The GDPR does not specify the credentials a DPO is expected to have. However, in its published guidelines, the WP29 (now the EDPB (European Data Protection Board)) defines specific minimum requirements regarding the DPO’s expertise and skills:

  • Level of expertise

Understanding how to build, implement and manage data protection programmes is essential. The more complex or high-risk the data processing activities are, the greater the expertise the DPO will need.

  • Professional qualities

DPOs do not have to be lawyers, but they must have expertise in national and European data protection law, including in-depth knowledge of the GDPR. DPOs must also have a reasonable understanding of the organisation’s technical and organisational structure and be familiar with information technologies and data security.

In the case of a public authority or body, the DPO should have a sound knowledge of its administrative rules and procedures.

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