Data controllers' responsibilities

If your organisation collect people's data, you need to know how GDPR applies to your practices

On 25 May 2018, the way companies collect and use personal data forever changed. The EU's General Data Protection Regulation set out tougher rules for how and what data can be processed, as well as clearly outlining wider reaching corporate responsibilities.

All businesses collect personal data of some description, whether that's customer details or employee data, however, how your company handles that information will determine its duties under GDPR - although the laws recognise that not all parties involved in the processing of data share the same responsibilities.

GDPR recognises that companies either fall under the category of data controller or data processor, although some may be a controller or a processor at different times depending on how the data is used.

Distinctions between the two roles are clear, however, GDPR also took the major step of adding a clause that makes both parties jointly liable for any incident that breaches the regulations. It's because of this change that understanding the role of the data controller, which has historically been able to step out of the firing line when it came to data breaches, is fundamental for avoiding regulatory action.

Controller responsibilities

A data controller is a person or company that decides how the data they hold is to be processed. Conversely, a data processor is a person or company that processes said data on behalf of the controller - because a data processor cannot be an employee of a controller, these tend to be third-party companies providing a service.

The controller is responsible for stating exactly what data is to be processed, how that processing should occur, and the justification for doing so. These requirements are an attempt to improve the clarity and accountability surrounding the use of personal data, and to make it easier to identify those at fault when a breach occurs.

Under GDPR, controllers are not only jointly liable (alongside processors) for breaches of data, but they also have the ongoing task of ensuring the processor remains compliant within the context of the law.

Let's take a look at some other core responsibilities:

Ensuring data is collected lawfully

There are several different legal positions a data controller can adopt in order to justify the collection and processing of data under GDPR, although some of these justifications are more robust than others.

One of the simplest and most well known is individual consent, which will allow a business to collect and process a subject's data with the understanding that they have agreed to this.

However, this is arguably the weakest legal position a company can adopt, as consent can be withdrawn at any time (meaning any data processing will grind to a halt), and providing enough information to inform a user's consent is a challenging task.

It's because of this that most legal experts will recommend a business rely on something other than consent. It's often the case that businesses will fall back on the 'Legitimate Interests' clause of the regulation, which allows the processing of data as part of a service that a customer might reasonably expect.

For example, a business has a legitimate interest to collect and process information relating to a customer who has recently bought a product through their online store, as without such processing the order cannot be fulfilled. However, that same business cannot use legitimate interest justification to then sell that data to a third-party website.

However, a business can also justify the collection and processing of user data if said processing is necessary in order to fulfil the terms of a contract. Similarly, if such processing is necessary in order to protect an individual's "vital interests" or if the processing could be deemed within the public interest, a business would have legal justification.

Regardless of how a business justifies its data activities, it must inform individuals what data is being collected and what they're doing with it.

Allowing people to access their data, move their data, change their data and delete their data

This means controllers must allow people to update their information, and move it to another service provider if they choose. Citizens can request a copy of their data, which must be supplied free of charge and within one month of the request.

A request to correct data must be completed within a month as well, or two months if the request is complex.

GDPR allows people to request that their data is deleted if it's no longer relevant or if they no longer consent to it being processed (among other reasons). But controllers can continue to process it for other reasons, including if they're legally obliged to, or it's health-related and in the public interest, or relates to advancing or defending legal claims.

Personal data must also be stored in machine-readable formats (like CSV files).

Data controllers must ensure they comply with almost every aspect of GDPR, which you can read more about in our dedicated in-depth explainer.

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