GDPR Series #7: Data Protection Officers (DPOs) – Do You Need One and How to Choose?

Data Protection Officers

GDPR mandates organizations that meet certain criteria to have a Data Protection Officer (DPO) to oversee and maintain their customer’s personal data. The main role of the DPO is to ensure that the organization processes the personal data of its employees, customers, and other stakeholders in compliance with the prevailing laws.

In this article of our GDPR series, we will dive deep into the workings of a DPO, determine if your organization needs one, and what aspects to look for while appointing a DPO.

When Do You Need a DPO?

Contrary to popular opinion, the legal obligations to have a DPO depend on your organization’s core processing activities, not size. The rule of thumb is that if you are processing sensitive and personal data on a large scale or if your processing can profoundly impact the rights and freedom of data subjects, you need a DPO.

If your organization matches one or more of the following criteria, you must appoint a DPO:

  • Public bodies, provided you are not a court or acting in a judicial capacity.
  • If the member states have a stricter law like the German Federal Data Protection Act, and you must abide by such laws, you need a DPO.
  • Your core activities include regular and systematic monitoring of data subjects on a large scale.
  • If you process criminal activities and offenses on a large scale.

Besides the above mandatory requirements, you can also appoint a DPO voluntarily to ensure compliance and build trust among your stakeholders.

Next, let’s talk about the aspects to look for while selecting a DPO.

How to Select a DPO?

Appointing a DPO is an important step towards GDPR compliance, hence you must select someone well-suited for the job. You can choose to promote an internal employee or hire an external candidate.

Internal Employee

Many organizations prefer to hire an internal employee, typically someone from the HR and legal team, as this employee understands your operations and processes. However, while appointing an internal employee, ensure there’s no conflict of interest with the other responsibilities.

In general, avoid appointing the following kinds of employees as DPOs:

  • An individual controlling data processing, like the head of Human Resources.
  • Your DPO must not be an employee with a short or fixed-term contract.
  • The reporting authority must be the top management and not any other supervisor.
  • The DPO must have a separate budget and the capacity to manage it.

External Candidate

On the other hand, if you prefer to hire an external candidate, here are some factors to consider for evaluation:

  • Look for candidates experienced in data protection, privacy laws, and GDPR.
  • Legal or IT backgrounds may be beneficial.
  • The DPO must effectively communicate data protection matters to employees, management, and external parties.
  • Look for candidates with strong analytical skills to interpret and assess data processing activities and risks.
  • The DPO should understand the organization’s operations, data processing activities, and industry-specific regulations.
  • The DPO must be accessible to data subjects and supervisory authorities, so choose someone who can dedicate sufficient time to the role.
  • Hire candidates committed to staying updated on data protection laws and industry best practices.

While these are broad guidelines, pick an individual you think can meet the responsibilities and obligations mandated by GDPR and other data protection laws.

Roles and Responsibilities of DPO

An important part of the hiring process is understanding the roles and responsibilities, to help select the right individual.

The tasks of a DPO include:

  • Understand and ensure compliance with GDPR and other relevant data protection laws.
  • Monitor specific processes like data protection impact assessments, employee training, and collaboration with supervisory authorities.
  • Inform controllers and data subjects about their data protection rights and obligations,
  • Provide direction on interpreting existing laws and creating the necessary processes and systems to ensure compliance.
  • Handle queries or complaints.
  • Identify gaps and notify the concerned employees and top management.

To help a DPO carry out the above tasks, you must provide the required budget, staff, and other resources. Some organizations even prefer to have a secondary or deputy DPO. Also, you must provide training when needed and must provide access to personal data and information on processes. It’s also a good idea to lay down the conditions for dismissal.

Moreover, note that your organization is still responsible for complying with data protection laws, and any missteps by the DPO will not offer any legal protection. Also, willful omission or negligence in appointing a DPO is an infringement subject to fines.

Final Words

In all, a DPO has an important role in ensuring compliance with GDPR’s data protection laws. Though not all organizations are required to appoint a DPO, you can still have an internal employee or a dedicated external candidate to maintain compliance.

Lavanya Rathnam

Lavanya Rathnam is an experienced technology, finance, and compliance writer. She combines her keen understanding of regulatory frameworks and industry best practices with exemplary writing skills to communicate complex concepts of Governance, Risk, and Compliance (GRC) in clear and accessible language. Lavanya specializes in creating informative and engaging content that educates and empowers readers to make informed decisions. She also works with different companies in the Web 3.0, blockchain, fintech, and EV industries to assess their products’ compliance with evolving regulations and standards.

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