Thought Leadership  •  January 24, 2022

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Data Protection Officer Roles and Responsibilities

When it comes to compliance and regulations for the protection of personal data, the data protection officer is one of the most important roles within the company. What's more, the data protection officer (DPO) role is only gaining more traction, given the increasing regulations for data privacy. Discover the changing role of the data protection officer, including how privacy regulations such as GDPR affect job tasks.

What Is a DPO?

Before we can look at how the data protection officer role is changing under new privacy laws, let's review the DPO role.

So, what is a data protection officer? This role was created by the EU's privacy law, which is known as the General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR. GDPR mandated that certain companies appoint a DPO when processing personal data is central to their business activities. DPO roles and responsibilities include tasks associated with data privacy, such as:

  • Tracking the lifecycle of personal data within an organization and the risks associated with processing it
  • Keeping up to date with changes to data protection laws
  • Understanding how laws such as GDPR interface with other privacy laws by which the business is bound 
  • Acting as a liaison between the business and data protection authorities when necessary
  • Training staff on how to process personal data, maintain compliance, and other data privacy activities

Data protection officers monitor their company's performance vis-a-vis privacy requirements under laws, including GDPR. They must alert the company of any areas of noncompliance, even if this means exposure to large fines.

While this role is generally associated with large companies, that's a misunderstanding of GDPR requirements. It's how much personal data and the types of personal data that a company handles — not the size of the company itself — that mandates the need for a DPO. Small and medium businesses may wish to assign DPO tasks to an existing role, rather than hire a dedicated data protection officer — and that's perfectly acceptable!

It's helpful for the data protection officer to have a legal background, although this isn't a requirement.

How a Data Protection Officer Handles Information Requests

Data protection officers oversee the handling of Data Subject Access Requests (DSARs) and PIAs, or Privacy Impact Assessments. Under the advisement of a data protection officer, dedicated employees review incoming DSAR requests for validity, process the requests in an efficient time frame, and communicate with customers about the DSAR process. The GDPR requires DSARs to be actioned within one month.

Why DPOs Must Monitor Compliance

Existing data protection laws are complex and varied across jurisdictions. It is the responsibility of the DPO to implement a privacy framework for their organization that best adheres to the various global privacy regulations. Upon establishing a privacy framework, the DPO delegates tasks to dedicated employees to meet compliance activities. So, why do some privacy laws require a DPO to keep up with compliance monitoring, and what tools does a data protection officer rely on to check existing documents for compliance with these laws?

From a legal perspective, a DPO constantly monitors privacy compliance activities under the requirements of the GDPR and other global and state privacy legislation relative to their business activities. Failure to follow privacy laws can be costly, so companies will want to make sure they adhere to the requirements regarding data protection.

As with other areas of operations, data privacy isn't a "one and done" task. Businesses are always collecting personal data. Employees come and go — and new ones need to be trained. Having one point person who understands the complexities of these regulations means the company can keep up with the influx of consumer data (and protect it). A proactive stance is necessary for GDPR compliance.

Lastly, data breaches can take place even if companies are doing everything "right." Laws such as the GDPR understand that data breaches happen. They require businesses to act immediately in event of a data breach. The DPO has a key role to play in responding to data breaches quickly and reporting to the appropriate parties without undue delay.

In addition to knowing the key functions of a data protection officer, it helps to understand the tools that support these individuals in performing their jobs. A DPO needs to monitor the different types of personal data processed by a company. Automation tools allow DPOs and privacy teams to quickly go through thousands of contracts to check for adherence to specific global privacy regulations as well as assist with DSARs. These tools allow the DPO to keep up with their responsibilities in an efficient, organized manner.

The Workflow of the DPO

The DPO’s primary function is tracking and protecting personal data within their organization. DPOs tend to report to senior executives, most often directly to the CEO of the organization. Given that the role requires training of employees, DPOs tend to interact with managers of other departments. Outside the organization, DPOs may liaison with supervisory authorities that want to check the organization’s compliance with data privacy regulations.

Data Privacy is a growing field. By understanding the role, responsibilities, and workflow of the data protection officer, companies can establish hiring requirements to get the right person in the door. This in turn should help avoid regulatory fines and penalties while taking steps to better protect customers’ personal data.

Joseph Seitz

Marketing Analyst, DFIN