Role playing

A few weeks ago, the Data Protection world was shaken by a decision from the Belgian DP Authority to fine an organisation €50,000 after they appointed their Head of the Compliance, Risk Management and Audit department as their Data Protection Officer. I’ve commented before about my frustration that too many organisations are unable to comprehend the independence and relative freedom of the DPO role as anything other than a senior-level job – in such places, the role is a DPOINO, a Data Protection Officer In Name Only, with a younger, more junior but much more expert person actually carrying out the role. The DPOINO in these organisations is usually a middle-aged white man, and the real DPO is a younger woman. I imagine you are shocked to read this.

The Belgian decision is not ridiculous – it is difficult for someone in a senior position to escape decisions about hiring and firing (for example) or system design, activities that risk dragging the incumbent into determining the purposes. If the DPO was less senior, even in the same department, the risk of conflicts of interests would be lower. There are better, more imaginative models, but I think seniority is always fatal. Needless to say, some commentators have drawn more other conclusions.

Writing for Scottish Housing News, Daradjeet Jagpal questioned whether it was time for his audience (Registered Social Landlords in Scotland) to review their DPO appointments. Despite this being a single case in a foreign jurisdiction with tenuous direct application to a non-EU country like the UK, Jagpal fell back on the consistency mechanism, and warned his readers that the ICO might adopt the same approach, skipping over the fact that Wilmslow’s approach to the GDPR has been to go to sleep. A quick survey of the possible candidates – mainly heads of various RSL departments – do not make the grade for Jagpal, and rather patronisingly, he dismisses the idea that a Corporate Services Officer would be “comfortable or sufficiently confident to challenge the CEO on non-compliance“. Take that, many DPOs who I know and love.

Jagpal comes to the conclusion that “The obvious solution is for RSLs to appoint an external DPO” which is remarkable, given that Jagpal is described in the article as “a leading provider of outsourced DPO services to RSLs across Scotland“. I’m not suggesting that he’s is over-egging the Belgian decision for nakedly commercial purposes, but he does place weirdly heavy emphasis on EU standards and pressures which are clearly either dead or dying for Brexit Britain, and he barely entertains the idea that Scottish RSLs might just appoint a DPO in-house.

To be fair, the Belgian decision is a real thing that happened, and while I disagree with Jagpal’s assessment of its implications, he’s accurately described the situation. The same cannot be said of everyone in the outsourced DPO sector. In a webinar hosted by everyone’s favourite LinkedIn spammers, Data Protection World Forum, the CEO of The DPO Centre, Rob Masson decided to get creative. Masson spoke of the “quite strict guidelines” (AKA legal requirements) about who can be a DPO and the importance of avoiding conflicts of interest. He went on to say “we’ve got to remember that the role of the Data Protection Officer is to represent the needs of the Data Subjects. It’s not necessarily to represent the needs of the organisation.”

None of the specified DPO tasks refer to data subjects. They require a DPO to advise the organisation on data protection matters, monitor its compliance with the GDPR and other laws, advise on and monitor the effectiveness of data protection impact assessments, and liaise with the Information Commissioner’s Office. If you wanted to be exceptionally generous to Masson, you could interpret the whole of the GDPR as reflecting the needs of data subjects to have their personal data properly regulated, and from there spin the DPO’s role as a facilitator of that. But that’s also nonsense. It’s as much in the interests of an organisation that the personal data they use is accurate and secure as it is for data subjects. The GDPR sometimes allows controllers to retain data despite a subject’s objection, to keep processing secret from them when it might prejudice certain purposes, and to balance their own wish to use data against the impact on the subject, deciding to use it without consent when they think they’ve assessed the situation properly.

If we’re talking about the needs of the organisation, I’d argue that most of the GDPR’s requirements reflect the needs of the controller. Some organisations are too lazy or stupid to see it, or they’re getting advice from the wrong people. It might seem like disposing of personal data that you genuinely don’t need any more is an unwelcome imposition, but it’s very much the healthy option. To use Masson’s own word, GDPR is the spinach that the organisation *needs*, even if it might prefer the Big Mac and Fries of not thinking about it.

A77 gives the subject the “right” to lodge a complaint with the relevant supervisory authority. A39(1)(a) says that the DPO “shall” inform and advise the organisation of their obligations. Contrast these provisions with the words in A38(4), the only element of the DPO articles that refers to subjects: “Data subjects may contact the data protection officer with regard to all issues related to processing of their personal data and to the exercise of their rights under this Regulation.” This obviously means that the DPO ought to be accessible to data subjects (one of my objections to senior DPOs is that they won’t go for this), but it also shows Masson’s version to be fantasy. There is no right to reply, no hint that the DPO is the subject’s advocate or representative. They’re at best a conduit for concerned subjects.

Obviously, the DPO isn’t just the loyal servant of the organisation, and they have to reconcile being an employee and an independent advisor. I disagree with Jagpal’s dismissal of junior officers as being capable of standing up to CEOs because I know so many who do it regularly. But he’s reflecting a real problem that many DPOs face. If the senior people don’t want to take the DPO’s advice, they are in an invidious position. Until the ICO shows that it is willing to back DPOs in these kinds of situations, it’s going to remain a precarious and stressful job for those facing unsympathetic management. Masson’s characterisation can only make this worse, feeding a perception that the DPO is not even there to help the business, but to pursue the interests of data subjects. Subjects come in all shapes and sizes, but some of them are hostile, difficult and aggressive, and telling a CEO who already doesn’t take data protection seriously that their DPO represents these people’s interests is toxic. This snake-oil may seem slick on a bullshit webinar, but if this unhelpful message reaches workplaces with already unsympathetic management, it’s going to make the work of beleaguered DPOs even harder.

I wonder if it’s a coincidence that Masson’s misreading of the GDPR could benefit his business – if the DPO really is there to serve the needs of the data subject, doesn’t an external figure make more sense than an in-house officer who won’t be doing what you want them to do anyway? There’s nothing in the GDPR that would make you think that this version of the DPO is correct, so it has to come from somewhere. If that’s it, rather than simple ignorance, I wonder if Masson has the guts to try to hawk this stuff in a forum where people might actually challenge him.

At this point, you might be thinking, so what? People talk shite to get business. They predict SARmageddons. They shout about 4% of annual turnover fines. They claim that first-tier decisions in Belgium should make you change your DPO.  Does it matter? Doesn’t every sector have its share of hype and froth? The answer is that I have to work in this one, and I think the truth matters. I also have to clean up other people’s bullshit. I have to overcome the hype and the scaremongering spread around by the other people in my industry. I know the popular mantra is that commercial folk should all be pitching in and helping each other, but by spreading misinformation, the likes of Rob Masson are already not doing that, so why should I?

The Information Commissioner’s Office isn’t going to enforce against organisations with an imperfect DPO choice – perhaps they should, but they won’t. They’ve done one GDPR fine in two years and I doubt we’ll see another one in 2020. Sidelined by government in the coronacrisis, facing a review from the DCMS (pointedly not postponed despite the pandemic) and humiliated by the collapse of multiple high profile actions, the ICO is an irrelevance. I’ll be surprised if they survive in their current form. The reason to choose the right DPO is that an independent, challenging person in the role will help organisations to make intelligent decisions that will build a culture of more secure, more accurate, more effectively used data. The DPO isn’t the voice of the subjects, they’re a valuable asset there to guide and assist the organisation. I won’t sell a single course place by saying so, but that doesn’t make it any less true.