Understanding data retention

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Written by Rebecca Bada
Senior GDPR Consultant
19/05/2022

It's not uncommon to hear about businesses storing large volumes of personal data. There are endless reasons as to why personal data may be collected and processed, such as to build user profiles in order to send targeted products and services. However, many businesses fail to consider what should be done with the data once it has served its purpose, without negatively influencing their reputation and infringing upon a data subjects' rights.

This blog will help you understand the importance of data retention, as well as how long personal data should be stored and the consequences of holding onto data for longer than necessary.

It's important that businesses demonstrate data retention practices according to specific industry regulatory requirements.

What is data retention?

Data retention is the practice of storing files or documents for a specific period, or indefinitely, due to compliance or business-related reasons. Any time your business saves data you are technically retaining it. The general principle around data retention is that data should only be kept for as long as it is necessary, and this is reflected under Article 5.1 of the UK GDPR. Although the UK GDPR does not provide set retention periods for data, it does require businesses to look at statutory requirements and implement retention schedules that are justified under business needs. For example, businesses holding information on an employee's health for the duration of their employment would be deemed appropriate but would need to be erased once the employee leaves.

Personal data can only be held for longer than a specified period so long as the data is processed for archiving in the public interest, statistical purposes, scientific or historical research. Only keeping data for as long as it is necessary is one of the GDPR's principles, yet this area is largely overlooked by businesses as deleting vast amounts of data can be time consuming and they may still consider the information a business asset.

It's important that businesses demonstrate data retention practices according to specific industry regulatory requirements. For example, organisations that accept credit card payments, or handle sensitive data relating to health information, must establish and adhere to PCI DSS and HIPAA data retention policies, respectively. This ensures that personal data is only stored for a period of processing and is then destroyed once it no longer serves a meaningful purpose to the organisation.

All businesses are required to be aware of data erasure exercises that give individuals the right to have their personal data purged if the data is no longer being processed for the reasons it was originally collected. This can be carried out via manual or automated means. It is one thing to create a data retention schedule or policy but is another job to implement it.

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Why are data retention policies important?

Implementing and following data retention policies are important in helping businesses organise and manage their data, keeping the data safe, and demonstrating that their data management is in accordance with industry standards and the law. Organisations without a data retention policy, or those with little understanding of data retention, are more likely to be exposed to financial and legal consequences, as well as data breaches, for over-retention of data.


Practice what you preach

Here are a few things to consider if your business stores personal data:

  • If data does not need to be held for any legal purposes, or does not add business value, ensure that you securely dispose it
  • Data that you hold should be periodically reviewed, and erased if no longer needed
  • Understand where data is held to ensure that it is fully disposed of
  • Respond to data subject access requests for any personal data you hold
  • Outsource the role of destroying data through automated means as this is a systematic way of ensuring data is erased
Organisations without a data retention policy, or those with little understanding of data retention, are more likely to be exposed to financial and legal consequence.
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Case Study - Data breach due to lack of security measures:

In 2021, the French Data Protection Authority (CNIL) imposed a €400,000 fine on the RATP Group, a state-owned public transport operator and maintainer, for non-compliance with key principles of the GDPR, including data retention policies. CNIL's data retention policy states that when the processing of data has served its purpose, it should be archived or disposed of. RATP were found to have kept data longer than the period that was proportionate to the purpose of processing, therefore the data was not archived or disposed of.

The data and documents collected for processing related to personal information that was to assist decision-making during staff appraisals. Due to the nature of the data being held in a decision-making capacity, the data could only be kept for the period of the proposed meetings to evaluate employees. However, RATP were found to have stored this data for several years therefore failing to adhere to GDPR principles of data retention. This was a case where the RAPT failed to follow data management practices in compliance with CNIL and therefore were held accountable for their over-retention of personal data beyond its necessary purpose.


Key takeaways

  • Review current Records of Processing Activities to understand what data is collected and how long it should be kept for
  • Assess the risk of holding onto data longer than necessary
  • Ensure that justifiable retention periods are established, and data destruction exercises are implemented
  • Organisations must ensure data retention and general data protection policies are followed correctly. It is not enough to simply have these in place

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