What are the responsibilities of a data controller?

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

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When the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force on 25 May 2018, the data protection and privacy landscape shifted dramatically. Provisions were toughened, while data protection regulators across EU member states were granted fresh powers to enforce the rules more strictly. Generally, however, these regulations were introduced in order to improve the data collection and processing hygiene across member states.

Most, if not all, businesses collect some form of data, whether it’s HR data on their workers or personal information from customers. How organisations handle this data is crucial, however, given the provisions set out under GDPR, with various requirements set out depending on what data a business gathers. Not all parties in the process of data collection and processing will be charged with the same responsibilities, with subtle but important differences between roles like data processors and data controllers. For some organisations, though, they must execute the responsibilities of both if they control and process data at different stages.

The key differences between the two roles, and what’s required from them, are outlined in GDPR but, where there’s a breach, a clause exists that ensures both processors and controllers are liable. The role of the data controller has changed slightly from that defined under the previous data protection regime, with GDPR making sure it's impossible to avoid responsibility when there are violations.

Controller responsibilities

The entity known as the data controller is the organisation, or person, charged with deciding how the data held is processed. A data processor, on the other hand, is the organisation or person responsible for processing data on behalf of the controller. These tend to be independent, third-party services, given data processors cannot be employed by the data controller.

The data controller must state exactly what data is being processed, how the processing should occur, and the reasons why the data is being processed. Controllers are charged with setting out this detail because GDPR attempts to improve the accountability surrounding how personal data is used and processed, so violations can be traced when they occur.

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.

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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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