What is a data protection officer?

A keyboard key displaying a police figure representing the data protection watchdog
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

2023 was a record-shattering year for GDPR fines, with Meta topping the list after receiving an eye-watering £1.2bn ($1.5bn) penalty from the Irish Data Protection Commission. The role of a data protection officer (DPO) has never been more important than it is today for businesses that handle personal data.

A data protection officer is a person who is responsible for ensuring that the personal data their organization collects, holds, and processes is in compliance with data protection rules. Personal data includes information relating to identified or identifiable natural persons who can be determined from the information collected.  

The UK has exited the EU, but that doesn't mean the obligation for British businesses to comply with EU law has changed. The UK has revamped its existing Data Protection Act to align with GDPR.

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This means that businesses that communicate with European citizens must have solid processes that ensure their company remains within the scope of the GDPR. It doesn't matter if your organization's head office is in the UK, Asia, Europe, or the US, you must follow the guidelines if you want to communicate with customers in the eurozone.

What is the main task of data protection officer

The GDPR defines the role of a data protection officer as “working towards compliance with all relevant data protection laws, monitoring specific processes, such as data protection impact assessments or the awareness-raising and training of employees for data protection, as well as collaborating with the supervisory authorities.” 

The DPO is responsible for their firm's GDPR compliance posture. The officer is tasked with monitoring all data processing activities on an ongoing basis, which means ensuring operations are in line with the data laws. The role includes advising on information security, checking the compliance of forms being used to gather data, and making Privacy Impact Assesments (PIA) for departments. 

Within the corporate structure, DPOs generally report directly to the highest management level within the company, which usually means the CEO or the board of directors. 

The DPO acts as the company's primary point of contact with the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) on any matters relating to data protection or data privacy. 

The DPO liaises directly with the regulator during investigations if a data breach occurs within a company. If a breach is likely to adversely affect the data subject's rights and freedoms, then the DPO must alert the ICO within the GDPR-mandated 72-hour time period.

The DPO also acts as the primary liaison for employees who have questions about the company's data processing policies. The officer is the public-facing touchpoint for customers or members of the public. They are responsible for acting on any subject access requests (SARs) or rectification or deletion requests that the business may receive.

Training and awareness is another element of the role. A DPO should conduct regular training sessions and audits to ensure that staff are aware of their organization's guidelines and legal responsibilities around the handling of data.

Do you need a data protection officer?

Business activity and the amount of data you process determines the answer to this question. Not company size. Companies are legally obliged to hire a data protection officer when the processing of sensitive personal data is essential to achieving their company’s goals. 

When looking at Article 4 of the European Data Protection Regulation, you will come across the term ‘data subjects’. This refers to a person such as a staff member, customer, or service provider. So, who requires a data protection officer? 

Hospitals that process large sets of sensitive data, security companies that monitor public or private spaces, and recruitment agencies that hold candidate data for job hunters are examples of businesses that would need a data protection officer.  

Additionally, organizations that collect and process information, specifically concerned with ethnicities, religious beliefs, trade union memberships, genetic data, biometrics, sexual orientation, and criminal offenses and convictions must appoint a DPO too.

Does a data protection officer need to be qualified

Your data protection officer can be appointed from within the company, or they can be a fresh hire from outside your company.

Of course, he or she does need to be qualified to hold the position. The legislation gives organizations a fairly free hand in deeming what qualifications are requisite for the role, however, simply stating that:

"The data protection officer shall be designated based on professional qualities and, in particular, expert knowledge of data protection law and practices and the ability to fulfill the tasks referred to in Article 39."

So the DPO should be well-versed in data protection law and how to comply with these rules, which is one reason former lawyers and barristers are proving popular hires with businesses that have already brought one on board. They can also hold other responsibilities within the organization, which may be particularly handy for those businesses that wish to recruit for the position internally, as long as these don't create a conflict of interest with their DPO duties.

Picture: Shutterstock

Clare Hopping
Freelance writer

Clare is the founder of Blue Cactus Digital, a digital marketing company that helps ethical and sustainability-focused businesses grow their customer base.

Prior to becoming a marketer, Clare was a journalist, working at a range of mobile device-focused outlets including Know Your Mobile before moving into freelance life.

As a freelance writer, she drew on her expertise in mobility to write features and guides for ITPro, as well as regularly writing news stories on a wide range of topics.