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Data Protection Officers and conflicts of interest

Samantha Smith examines a recent Belgian case where a data protection officer was found to have had a conflict of interest.

In May 2018, with the implementation of GDPR, some senior managers (and many junior ones) found themselves thrown into the then unknown statutory role of Data Protection Officer (“DPO”). Two years on, some now have a better understanding of their role whilst others are still battling to manage the many different requirements of the job.

Articles 38 and 39 of the GDPR outline the role of the DPO. They should, amongst other things, be:

  • involved in data breach discussions and investigations whilst being provided with adequate resource to fulfil their obligations;
  • not dismissed for the performance of their duties as DPO;
  • able to offer secrecy and confidentiality to data subjects in relation to data protection matters within the organisation; and
  • actively involved and consulted on the data processing risks associated to proposed data processing activities within the organisation, which are usually highlighted within the Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA).

The law is still in its infancy, and remains largely untested in the courts, but a recent case may lead to a few DPOs feeling a little nervous about their role.

€50,000 Fine

The Belgian Data Protection Authority recently issued a €50,000 fine to an organisation after it ruled that the organisation’s DPO had a conflict of interest under Article 38(6) of GDPR. The DPO had been employed by the organisation as the Head of Compliance, Risk Management and Audit in addition to acting as DPO.

A reportable data breach lead to an investigation by the Belgian regulator who sought to dig a little deeper into the organisation’s general approach to privacy compliance.

The investigation focussed on three main potential infringements of GDPR namely:

  1. The duty to cooperate with the data protection authority
  2. The accountability obligations of the organisation in relation to data breach notifications and data protection risk assessments
  3. The requirements related to the position of the DPO

The investigation found that the organisation’s DPO appointment failed to meet the requirements of the legislation as the individual was responsible for the processing of personal data in the areas of compliance, risk and audit and therefore could not independently advise on such matters.

Many data protection experts have interpreted this ruling as preventing any employee who is a “head of department” from carrying out the DPO rule without a conflict of interest, although the situation is not as clear cut.

Conflict of interests

Whilst the employer will pay their salary, the DPO must be able to act independently and without fear or favour. The Article 29 Working Party’s Guidelines on DPO’s makes reference to a number of roles which would be considered to pose a conflict of interests with the position of DPO namely; Chief Executive, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Medical Officer, Head of Marketing, Head of HR and Head of IT.
All of these roles involve a significant amount of personal data processing and decision making, resulting in an impossible independent standpoint to be taken on data matters arising as a result.

This ruling presents an opportunity for organisations to review their DPO position.

Both the organisation and the individual must be clear about the role. The job description should be reviewed from time to time in the light of changing roles and responsibilities. This may flag up potential conflicts of interest.

It is common for DPOs, especially in the public sector, to wear many “hats” due to budget constraints. Whilst GDPR does allow this, if there is any doubt about a conflict of interests, the decision-making process should be documented and the position reviewed.

If any mitigating measures are to be put in place to reduce the risk of conflict, these should be outlined and reviewed periodically as new risks and processing activities are presented to the organisation.

Data protection and privacy is an ever-changing area of compliance and in the coming years, more case law will be generated as the principles of the legislation are put to the test. With the end of the Brexit transition period approaching and changing uses of technology due to the global coronavirus pandemic, organisations will need to remain alert to potential issues arising from their original GDPR implementation plan.

Samantha Smith is a Data Protection Manager and qualified Solicitor with experience of data protection compliance projects across both public and private sectors.

This article first appeared on the Act Now Blog. Information on the company's courses, including those online, can be found on Local Government Lawyer's courses and events section.

The issues covered in this article will be covered along with other GDPR developments in Act Now's new online GDPR update workshop. Its next online  GDPR Practitioner Certificate course is  fully booked. A few places are left  on the course starting in August.

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