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The Tech Break

What is a Data Protection Officer & How Do They Help?

Aug 25, 2020 / by Christine Nguyen

Data Protection Officer working at computer

Data protection is becoming increasingly important, and for good reason. Massive breaches in recent years have shaken consumer trust in organizations that process and store data, prompting the EU to implement GDPR legislation in 2018. In addition to GDPR, CCPA, HIPAA, NIST, and CMMC all have their own privacy requirements that need to be met in order for businesses to be compliant.

Having a data protection officer not only helps ensure your organization is taking appropriate steps to safeguard user privacy and ensure compliance, but can also help you build strong, trusting relationships with your customers.

What is a Data Protection Officer?

A data protection officer (DPO) is a leadership security role that enforces the terms of various legislative items and ensures compliance. The responsibilities of the data protection officer include overseeing an organization’s data protection strategy and its implementation to ensure compliance. 

However, a well-rounded data protection officer will not only ensure compliance but also help you identify and address security issues that could be used by criminals to gain unauthorized access to private customer data.

Is a Data Protection Officer the Same as a Privacy Officer or Chief Privacy Officer?

Though only GDPR explicitly states that a data protection officer is required, it is generally considered good practice to have a dedicated individual on staff responsible for monitoring the collection, transfer, and storage of user data and handle any questions or concerns customers may have regarding their data and how it is used. Many organizations title this role as a privacy officer, though some add this individual to their executive suite and give them the title Chief Privacy Officer

Do HIPPA, CCPA, NIST & CMMC Mandate Privacy Officers to Ensure Compliance?

HIPAA requires companies to appoint a HIPAA Compliance Officer, and NIST regulations assume that organizations have one or more privacy officers on staff

CCPA does not explicitly mandate or regulate the privacy officer role. However, provisions exist that specify organizations are obligated to ensure their staff is trained to ensure compliance and handle data-related customer inquiries.

To be considered CMMC compliant, the DoD classes firms bidding on defense contracts according to 5 levels of cybersecurity certification. Though a company or organization is not required under CMMC to have a privacy officer, most organizations concerned with CMMC should seriously consider having one.

Do All Organizations Need Data Protection Officers? 

Since the role of a data protection officer or privacy officer goes far beyond ensuring compliance, all organizations should have either a dedicated data protection officer on staff or work with an external business or organization to fill this role. 

While having a data protection officer (or outsourcing this role to a third party) is not legally mandated, all organizations should consider having someone dedicated to both ensuring compliance (to help avoid legal, financial, or reputational headaches should a breach occur) and help safeguard sensitive information, including private customer data.

Depending on the nature of your business (which will determine which pieces of legislation are relevant to you) and your size, you may not need to have a full-time data protection officer on staff. However, either someone at your company should fulfill this role in addition to other roles, or you should consider working with external experts. An external company can give you access to an entire team of experts to help ensure compliance as well as optimize your current security best practices to help prevent cyberattacks and breaches. 

Glasses making computer screen clear

Why Are Data Protection Officers Important?

Though GDPR, CCPA, HIPAA, NIST, and CMMC have caused more than a few headaches for organizations around the world (prompting more than one business owner to proclaim “GDPR? More like GDPAaarrg!”), data protection officers play a vital role that extends beyond ensuring compliance. 

These experts are there to act as guides, educating their fellow employees on the various forms of legislation, and helping ensure compliance across departments. They also train any staff members that are involved in data processing and act as a point of contact between the company and any supervisory authorities that oversee activities related to compliance.

At their core, the data protection officer or privacy officer is there to act as an internal privacy advocate for customers and safeguard user privacy. Your data protection officer may be viewing user privacy through a compliance lens, but the steps they take and the safeguards they put in place extend beyond simply ensuring compliance. 

How Do Data Protection Officers Safeguard User Privacy?

In Europe, data protection has historically been considered a legal function, so many companies that are headquartered in Europe place their data protection officers in the legal department. American multinationals, however, typically take a more diverse approach towards chief privacy officer or privacy officer placements and may shelter this role under a variety of different departments depending on the organization’s structure and needs. 

Wherever department the role of data protection officer falls under, they need to have the independence required to perform their duties. The data protection officer needs to be able to do things like conduct internal audits and report potential issues freely without worrying about whether or not the executives at the top will be happy with their findings. 

This freedom within the organization means that the data protection officer is ultimately held accountable to the individuals whose data the company processes and stores, not to the company itself or its executive team. 

Choosing a Data Protection Officer

Many organizations hire data protection officers as internal employees, but others choose to hire firms to fill the data protection officer role. GDPR, CCPA, HIPAA, NIST, and CMMC are all complicated pieces of legislation, so the data protection officer not only needs to be intimately familiar with all the ins and outs of each relevant set of guidelines but also have enough legal knowledge to effectively carry out their duties and meet their obligations to consumers. Smaller organizations may not have the resources to support an internal data protection officer or may require additional assistance to ensure compliance and safeguard customer data on a larger scale.

Safeguarding your customer’s private data can be a daunting task. A data protection officer can not only ensure your organization is compliant but also help protect private data in other ways, which can help you build and maintain trust between yourself and your clients.

Topics: Business, Laws & Regulations

Christine Nguyen

Written by Christine Nguyen

Christine Nguyen joined the Bird Rock Systems family in 2019 and entered the technology space after spending the last decade of her career in the hospitality industry. Since then, Christine has learned to mix the qualities of hospitality and helping others into her nurturing approach in supporting her customers with complex technology-related challenges. Being a good listener while developing strong relationships built on trust and integrity is her modus operandi!

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