What is a data protection officer?

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Joseph Poppy
Security Blogger
07th November 2019

What is a data protection officer?

A Data Protection Officer (DPO) is a role that oversees a company’s processing of personal data of staff, customers or any other data subjects to ensure it is done in accordance with the relevant data protection laws. A DPO effectively acts as a bridge between your company and data subjects as well as the ICO (or relevant regulatory authority). They primarily ensure a reliable data protection and risk assessment strategy is in place to maintain compliance with regulations and protect the rights of data subjects.

Whilst the development of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) did not introduce the concept of a DPO, it has placed more emphasis on the importance of securing personal data. Data subjects (i.e. the people identified by the information) are also more aware of their rights and how to exercise them, meaning DPOs are becoming more commonplace and essential.

DPOs are becoming more commonplace and essential

What does a data protection officer do?

A data protection officer’s role is varied and there are many day-to-day tasks that they must carry out as part of their overall data protection strategy. This will include:

  • Handling data breaches – informing data subjects and the ICO (in the UK)
  • Providing training where needed
  • Providing advice concerning Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs) and monitoring their progress
  • Reviewing policies and procedures
  • Act as the main contact point to the relevant regulatory authority
  • Act as a contact point for data subjects and actioning subject access requests

It’s important to note that, whilst a DPO can and will offer advice concerning GDPR compliance, the responsibility ultimately lies with the processor or controller. These entities are liable in the case of non-compliance, not the data protection officer.

Does my company legally need a DPO?

Since the introduction of GDPR, certain companies are legally required to have a DPO. Your business will need to appoint a DPO if:

You are a public authority or body

You will need a data protection officer if you are a public authority or body. Examples of these would be schools, hospitals, local governments or any publicly owned body.

Your core activities involve large-scale, regular and systematic monitoring of individuals

Large-scale, regular and systematic monitoring includes tracking and profiling. For example, the use of CCTV, or retailers monitoring the searches of their customer base to better target ads can be said to fall into this category.

Your core activities involve the large-scale processing of special category data

If your business is processing special category data, you are legally required to appoint a DPO. Special category data is personal data that sits in the following categories:

  • Genetic data
  • Trade union membership
  • Health
  • Sexual orientation
  • Race or ethnicity
  • Political opinions
  • Identifying biometric data

If your company doesn’t fall into any of these criteria, you’ll still need to appoint someone to be responsible for public data, so a DPO is recommended anyway.

Cyber Essentials certification process
Certain companies are legally required to have a DPO

What rights do data subjects have?

GDPR gave data subjects a lot more rights than they had under previous data protection acts, granting them more control over their personal data, increasing the number of requests a DPO might receive. Under GDPR, people in the EU have the following rights:

The right to be informed

This right entitles data subjects to know specific information concerning your data processing activities, the amount of time you will be keeping data, their rights and the right to lodge a complaint. Much of this will be covered if you have a well-written privacy notice.

Right of access

If asked, companies must confirm whether they are holding or processing data and be able to provide a copy of said data. The information must be provided within 30 days of receiving the request and must be provided in an easy to read/use format. The information must be provided for free, unless the request can be deemed excessive.

Right of rectification

If any information held on a data subject is incorrect, then they can request that it is changed and updated.

Erasing data
Data subjects have the right to request any data you hold on them.

Right to erasure

Sometimes called the right to be forgotten, this right allows data subjects to request their data is removed from all platforms if:

  • It was processed unlawfully
  • The data is no longer needed and there is no other legal purpose
  • Consent to process is withdrawn (assuming consent is your legal basis)
  • They object to processing

Right to restrict processing

If the data is inaccurate, no longer needed or you are in the process of actioning a right to erasure request, a data subject may request you no longer process their information. It can still be stored at this point, but no processing can occur.

Right to not be evaluated based on automated processing

GDPR stipulates that users can object to being subject to a decision that is based on automated processing that can have a significant impact, such as in job applications.

The right to object

Data subjects can object to their data being processed at any time if there is no legitimate need, or your lawful basis is based on consent and consent has been withdrawn.

The right to complain

Data subjects must be able to level complaints concerning the processing of their data. They must be made aware of how to go about this in a clear manner.

Who can be a data protection officer?

The DPO role can be filled by someone already working for your organisation. They should have no other duties beyond data protection. For example, someone within your marketing department could not also be your DPO as they’re likely to be the ones deciding what is being done with the personal data. Alternatively, you can give someone the sole role of data protection officer.

You can also outsource this role to an external company. This is often seen as a more cost-effective method, allowing businesses to pay only for the time needed. Outsourced DPOs will also already have the necessary data protection knowledge in order to carry out the role and, working with multiple companies, will have a wider pool of knowledge across numerous industries.

An internal DPO should have no other duties beyond data protection

Can a CISO act as the DPO?

Whilst it may seem that a CISO’s skills and qualifications complement the DPO role, there is a clear conflict of interest. Firstly, the DPO should report to the highest authority, be it a board of directors or a CEO. CISOs will often report to CIOs or CFOs. Even if they do report directly to the board or CEO, they will be the ones dictating the overarching digital security policy.

It is the DPO’s responsibility to audit this policy and ensure it is compliant with the likes of GDPR. A DPO also has to operate independently. A CISO (or any high-ranking IT position) acting as a DPO would mean they’d be monitoring themselves. This is a conflict of interest. Therefore, a CISO cannot be your DPO. However, they can support the DPO.

Can I appoint more than one DPO?

You can only have one DPO who is a single point of contact for both data subjects and the regulatory authority. However, you can have other data protection staff members working to support the DPO if you feel it is necessary or beneficial.

DPO's looking at a screen
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What qualifications should a DPO have?

There are no specific qualifications specified for data protection officers. There are some certified DPO training courses that can be taken to better understand the role. Of course, a sound knowledge of data protection law is essential. Knowledge of the organisation’s specific industry or sector is ideal too and a good knowledge of security is desirable.

What are the risks of not having a DPO?

If you are not legally required to appoint a DPO, you still need to appoint someone to be responsible for personal data under GDPR. You will still have to respond to queries and requests from data subjects in a timely fashion and cooperate with the regulatory authority in the case of a breach that poses a risk to data subjects’ rights. If handled incorrectly, your business could face serious legal ramifications.

Benefits of employing a full-time DPO

As previously mentioned, an existing member of staff can be appointed the DPO role. This may work for smaller companies, but it is rarely recommended. For starters, you need to ensure that their day-to-day job does not present a conflict of interest with their duties as a DPO. This can be rather broad and difficult to define, but see the examples given in ‘who can be a data protection officer?’.

Under GDPR, the data subject has considerably more rights. For example, the right to rectification. If you are storing personal data that is incorrect, the data subject may contact you and request it be changed. You would be obliged to make those changes in a timely manner. They also have the right to request that their data be erased. Assuming you’ve no legal obligation to keep it, or do not require the data to fulfil your contractual obligations, you must fulfil this request. These requests, along with the numerous other duties of the DPO, makes trying to balance this along with another role incredibly demanding.

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A Bulletproof DPO hard at work
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Benefits of outsourcing DPO services

Many companies are offering an outsourced DPO service in light of GDPR and there are numerous benefits to choosing this option. First and foremost, outsourcing the role is often a more cost-effective solution. Your chosen DPO does not have to be in the office from nine till five, five days a week. In fact, you may find that you only need the skills of a Data Protection Officer for a number of hours every month, in which case outsourcing makes perfect sense.

When outsourcing this role, you are able to choose how much time the DPO is required each month and then pay for that time alone.

You also have access to a DPO who is completely independent of the business and therefore, there is no risk of a conflict of interest, and they can provide purely objective advice. Not only that, they will already be experts on data protection and know the ins and outs of GDPR.

As a DPO is likely to have worked for several different companies, the chances are they will already have experience of dealing with a data breach and will therefore have a plan ready to deal with this situation should you need it. They will certainly know the best way to go about collating all the data needed and how to present this to the regulator.

Outsourcing the DPO role is often a more cost-effective solution

What does a data protection officer cost?

Cost of an in-house data protection officer

The average yearly wage of a dedicated in-house data protection officer is £49,000. You will also have to take holidays and sickness into account. There will also be costs in terms of human resources to consider as you advertise, interview for and fill the role.

Cost of outsourcing the data protection role

Outsourcing the DPO role can be an extremely cost-effective choice, particularly for SMEs. In outsourcing, you will only have to pay for the days required. Whilst the price can vary depending on individual requirement, approximate costs for outsourcing are:

Data Protection Officer costs
Business Size DPO Time & Delivery Cost Range
Small (< 20 employees) Generally, 4 hours per month will be enough for a small business. Virtual delivery, with on-site visits once a quarter, is typically the best way to deliver this level of DPO service. From around £600 pcm
Medium (21-200 employees) We usually find that 1 day per month is enough for most medium businesses, though more may be required if your organisation is data-heavy or with multiple offices. On-site delivery is recommended. From around £1,000 pcm
Enterprise For larger companies that work across multiple sites and sectors, a bespoke package will be required. With more DPO time being required, a mixture of on-site and off-site delivery will generate best results. Depends on requirements

Does a data protection officer secure personal data?

Whilst a data protection officer is concerned with ensuring personal data is kept secure and private, they are reliant on all departments and members of staff when it comes to actually securing the data. For example, the IT team would be in charge of locking down folders. HR need to ensure they are following the right process and not sharing information with anyone who doesn’t strictly need it. A DPO can advise on these procedures and test any technical controls, but they will not actually implement them. In short, everyone is involved in keeping personal data secure.

How do I appoint a DPO?

Step 1: Find out if you are legally required to have a DPO.

Step 2: Do a rough audit on the volume and types of data you collect/process.

Step 3: Decide whether you will employ a dedicated data protection officer or outsource the role.

Step 4: Choose a candidate with an in-depth knowledge of and experience in data protection law, with specific emphasis on GDPR requirements. Preferably, you will also want someone with a good knowledge of your industry and/or information security.

A data protection officer plays a vital role in protecting the privacy and rights of your data subjects – both your customers and your staff. An experienced expert will help your organisation maintain compliance with GDPR and protect your organisation from costly legal repercussions.

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Follow our steps and before you know it, you’ll have a brand new DPO appointed.
A data protection officer plays a vital role in protecting the rights of data subjects

Our DPOs are cyber security experts

Bulletproof’s DPOs are cyber-security experts as well as qualified EU GDPR practitioners. They have a wealth of data protection knowledge and can provide professional training (both GDPR and cyber security). They support a wide range of organisations of all sizes and industry sectors, successfully guiding them through the complex responsibilities.


Whether you are legally obligated to appoint a Data Protection Officer or not, there has to be someone who takes charge of personal data and its protection within every business holding data on EU/UK citizens. Having a dedicated DPO can alleviate the stress of having to maintain GDPR compliance along with seeing out other duties. It is a varied, time-consuming role which will be invaluable for protecting your business. Fines aside, a data breach or poor data management can have serious reputational impacts and any data subjects affected by the breach can make separate damage claims.

Be sure to make an informed decision when it comes to selecting your DPO. Whether you appoint a member of staff, hire a dedicated DPO or plan on outsourcing this role, be sure to go for an option that best suits your business.

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Meet the author

Joseph Poppy Security Blogger

Joseph is a Communications Executive and Security Blogger who has contributed articles covering a range of topics including staying ahead of cyber threats.

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