The Data Protection Officer (DPO) Role Under the GDPR

What is a data protection officer?

Data protection officers (DPOs) are independent data protection experts who are responsible for:

  • Monitoring an organisation’s data protection compliance;
  • Informing it of and advising on its data protection obligations;
  • Reviewing and providing guidance on privacy policies, procedures and documentation relating to processing personal data;
  • Acting as the contact point for data protection authorities for all data protection issues;
  • Providing advice on DPIAs (data protection impact assessments), the manner of implementation and outcomes;
  • Advising on data breach monitoring, management and reporting; and
  • Advising on responses to privacy rights requests from individuals.

Under the EU GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), many organisations must appoint a DPO to ensure their compliance.

UK data protection law is currently being revised. We are following the progress of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill through parliament and will keep you updated on how it might affect your data processing obligations.

The Data Protection Officer (DPO) Role – A beginner’s guide

Free download: The Data Protection Officer (DPO) Role – A beginner’s guide

Find out more about what a GDPR DPO does, if you need to appoint one and how to fill the data protection officer role in our free guide.

Download now

Data protection courses and DPO services

Alongside our sister company GRCI Law, we have a selection of products and services that can help you meet your GDPR data protection officer requirements, whether it is an outsourced solution, complementary support or certified training.

Our certified GDPR training courses offer a structured learning path that equips data protection and information security professionals and individuals who lack data protection expertise and experience with the specialist knowledge and skills needed 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.

What does a DPO do?

The GDPR has increased the demand for DPOs, but not every organisation must appoint one under the Regulation.

Organisations must assess whether they need one and, if so, who they should give that responsibility to. Some legal requirements must be met, such as avoiding conflicts of interest, which can prove challenging.

Data protection officer roles and responsibilities

Articles 37–39 of the GDPR set out its DPO-related requirements:

  • When one must be appointed (Article 37);
  • The nature of their position in the organisation (Article 38); and
  • The tasks they must carry out (Article 39).

Infringements of articles 37–39 leave organisations open to the GDPR’s lower level of administrative fines: up to 2% of annual global turnover or €10 million (about £8.5 million), so it’s essential to meet your DPO obligations correctly and in full.

The DPO's tasks

The DPO reports directly to “the highest management level” in the organisation and has the following tasks under the GDPR:

  • Informing and advising the organisation and its employees of their data protection obligations.
  • Monitoring the organisation’s compliance with the GDPR and internal data protection policies and procedures. This will include monitoring the assignment of responsibilities, awareness training, and training of staff involved in processing operations and related audits.
  • Advising on whether a DPIA is necessary, how to conduct one and expected outcomes.
  • Serving as the contact point for the ICO (or other relevant supervisory authority) on all data protection issues, including data breach reporting.
  • Serving as the contact point for data subjects on privacy matters, including DSARs (data subject access requests).

Who needs to appoint a data protection officer?

Mandatory appointment

Under the GDPR, the requirement to appoint a data protection officer is mandatory under three circumstances:

  1. The organisation is a public authority or body.
  2. The organisation’s core activities consist of data processing operations that require regular and systematic monitoring of data subjects on a large scale.
  3. The organisation’s core activities consist of large-scale processing of special categories of data (sensitive data such as personal information on health, religion, race or sexual orientation) and/or personal data relating to criminal convictions and offences.

SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) are not exempt from the DPO requirements, should any or all of the above apply.

Other circumstances in which to appoint a DPO

The GDPR permits member states to specify other circumstances in which a DPO must be appointed.

Although the UK DPA (Data Protection Act) 2018 does not extend the GDPR’s requirements for DPOs, several other member state laws do.

German data protection law, for example, requires every organisation with ten or more employees that permanently processes personal data to appoint a DPO.

Voluntary appointment

Even where the GDPR does not specifically require a DPO to be appointed, it is highly encouraged by the EDPB (European Data Protection Board) as a matter of good practice.

However, the role of the DPO is defined by the GDPR. So, if you appoint a DPO, they must fulfil the requirements the law sets out for them. Failing to do so will leave your organisation open to regulatory action.

Therefore, if you are not legally obliged to appoint a DPO, you are better off appointing a GDPR manager or data privacy officer to oversee your GDPR compliance.

Like the official DPO role, this can be outsourced. Delivered by our sister company GRCI Law, Privacy as a Service will provide you with fast and expert support from independent privacy lawyers, DPOs and cyber security experts.

Learn more about Privacy as a service

Legal status of the DPO

A DPO has the same legal status whether the appointment is voluntary or mandatory. Organisations will be liable for the same penalties if the DPO role is not fulfilled correctly. Therefore, they might find it sensible to employ someone in a similar role to oversee data protection but with the freedom to be more involved in the practicalities.

Need extra data protection expertise? Discover GRCI Law’s DPO and Data Privacy Manager services

Do I have to appoint a DPO internally?

No. 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).

Either way, your 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

What are the legal requirements for the DPO role?

  • Independence

    The GDPR requires that the DPO operate independently and without instruction from their employer 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 ICO. 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 must ensure that these do not result in a “conflict of interests” 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).

What qualifications does a DPO need?

The GDPR does not specify the credentials a DPO must have. However, the WP29 (Article 29 Working Party) published guidelines, which have been adopted by its successor, the EDPB, defining 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 expert knowledge of data protection law and practices the DPO will need.
  • Professional qualities – DPOs do not need to be qualified lawyers. Still, 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 what technical and organisational measures the organisation has in place and be familiar with information technologies and data security.

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

Free webinar: Appointing a DPO under the GDPR

The demand for experienced data protection professionals is growing, along with the pressure on organisations to comply with the GDPR.

Download our free webinar, which informs organisations looking to appoint a DPO of:

  • The specific situations in which organisations are required to appoint a DPO; 
  • The DPO’s position with respect to the controller or the processor and senior management/board; 
  • The responsibilities of the DPO; 
  • The function of data protection impact assessments under the GDPR; and 
  • The legal requirements for appointing a DPO.

Download now

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