GDPR: Data Protection Impact Assessments

July 16, 2017

Early in 2016, Computers & Law (Vol 26, Issue 6)
featured my article on ‘
Impact Assessments and the GDPR
‘. Back then, my life was about preparing
for dinner parties and excitedly examining the text of the brand new EU General
Data Protection Regulation. Now, 18 months later, things have moved on.
Firstly, my dietary risk assessments are no longer focused on dinner parties;
they now revolve around what my eight-month-old baby should or should not be
eating. On the list of high-risk foods are grapes, and processing activities
include putting them in a blender to mitigate this risk.

Secondly, with under a year to go until the GDPR applies, we
now have more guidance on what the requirements for data protection impact
assessments (DPIAs) mean in practice. The Article 29 Working Party has
published Guidelines on DPIAs and determining whether processing is ‘likely to
result in a high risk’ (WP248) (DPIA Guidelines). These were published on 4
April 2017 and were open for comments until 23 May 2017. At the time of
writing, no updated version has been published.

The Working Party has also produced Guidelines on Data
Protection Officers (WP243) (DPO Guidelines). These were originally published
on 13 December 2016, and a revised version was published on 5 April 2017. They
include guidance on the meaning of ‘large scale’ and ‘systematic’ processing,
which assists in identifying when a DPIA is needed (as well as when a DPO is

In addition, the Information Commissioner’s Office has
published a discussion paper on profiling and automated decision-making (ICO
Discussion Paper), which are activities for which a DPIA may be required. The
paper was published in April 2017 and the feedback will inform the ICO’s input
into the drafting of EU guidance in this area.

What is a high risk activity?

We know from the text of Article 35(1) of the GDPR that
DPIAs need to be carried out for high risk activities, including the three
areas specified in Article 35(3). These are, in summary: (a) systematic and
extensive evaluation of personal data (including profiling) and on which
decisions affecting individuals are based; (b) large-scale processing of
sensitive personal data; and (c) systematic and large-scale monitoring of
publicly accessible areas. But what specific activities are captured by
sub-sections (a) to (c), and what otherwise constitutes a ‘high risk’?

The ICO Discussion Paper gives examples of activities
falling under sub-section (a):

  • profiling and scoring for the purposes of risk assessment (eg
    credit scoring, insurance premium setting, fraud prevention, detection of money
  • location tracking, for example by mobile apps, to decide
    whether to send push notifications;
  • loyalty programmes;
  • behavioural advertising; and
  • monitoring of wellness, fitness and health data via wearable

This would also capture partially automated processing, and
therefore a DPIA may still be needed even if there is some human involvement in
the process.

Sub-section (b) captures processing on a large scale of data
about racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical
beliefs, trade union membership, health, sex life, sexual orientation, as well
as genetic data, biometric data for unique identification and data relating to
criminal convictions and offences. The DPO Guidelines provide guidance on how
to interpret ‘large scale’: it should take into account the number of individuals,
the volume of data and range of data items, the duration of the activity and
the geographical extent of the activity.

Unfortunately, they do not provide guidance on specific number
ranges. We are therefore still facing uncertainty on whether the numbers of
individuals and sensitive data items involved in a project are sufficiently great
to be ‘large scale’. The DPO Guidelines envisage the development of standard
practice for interpretation in more specific or quantitative terms for certain
types of common processing activities.

Examples of activities which do constitute large-scale
processing are:

  • processing of patient data in the regular course of business
    by a hospital; and
  • processing of personal data for behavioural advertising by a
    search engine.

Examples of activities that do not constitute large-scale
processing are:

  • processing of patient data by an individual physician; or
  • processing of client data on criminal convictions and offences
    by an individual lawyer.

Of course, for the purposes of DPIAs, organisations still
need to consider whether these activities constitute high risk for a specific
project (on the basis of them being large scale or otherwise).

The DPO Guidelines are also useful for interpreting sub-section
(c). As well as considering ‘large scale’, they discuss the meaning of ‘systematic’:
occurring according to a system; pre-arranged, organised or methodical; taking
place as part of a general plan for data collection; or carried out as part of
a strategy.

The DPIA Guidelines provide that a piazza, shopping centre,
street or public library are examples of a ‘publicly accessible area’, which
indicates sub-section (c) is intended to capture monitoring of a physical space
(for example using CCTV, drones or body-worn devices). However, monitoring
online may also be considered high risk, as discussed below.

In addition to sub-sections (a) to (c), the DPIA Guidelines
set out a list of criteria to be considered in determining whether an activity
is likely to result in a high risk. Organisations may wish to draw on these
when preparing screening questions or checklists for business teams to complete
as part of project initiation.

As a rule of thumb, if the activity meets two or more of
these criteria, a DPIA will be required. This rule may be overturned by the
context – an activity meeting only one criteria could still carry a high risk,
and an activity meeting two or more criteria may be of lower risk. It is
therefore important to assess the substance, and document reasons for the

The criteria are:

  • Evaluation or scoring, including profiling and predicting.
    Examples include a bank screening its customers against a credit reference
    database, a biotechnology company offering genetic tests to assess and predict
    health risks, and a company building behavioural or marketing profiles based on
    use of its website.
  • Automated-decision making with legal or similar significant
    This includes where the processing may lead to exclusion of or
    discrimination against individuals.
  • Systematic monitoring. This covers processing used to
    observe, monitor or control data subjects, and is wider than (but includes)
    monitoring of publicly accessible areas listed in Article 35(3).
  • Sensitive data. As well as use of special categories of data
    and data relating to criminal convictions, this includes other data which can
    increase the risks to individuals, such as electronic communications data,
    location data, financial data, and information produced for personal activities
    when using online services (such as email or document management services).
  • Data processed on a large scale. This is wider than the
    specific large-scale activities listed in Article 35(3).
  • Datasets that have been matched or combined. This includes
    combining data used for different purposes or from different organisations.
  • Data concerning vulnerable data subjects. Such data subjects
    may include employees, children, the mentally ill, asylum seekers, the elderly,
    patients, and other individuals where there is an imbalance in the relationship
    between them and the organisation.
  • Innovative use or applying technological or organisational
    Examples include combining use of fingerprint and face recognition
    for improved physical access control, and Internet of Things applications.
  • Data transfer across borders outside the European Union.
    This should take into consideration the country of destination, the possibility
    of further transfers or the likelihood of transfers based on derogations.
  • Processing which prevents data subjects from exercising a
    right or using a service or a contract.
    This includes processing performed in a
    public area that people passing by cannot avoid.

The Guidelines go on to give examples of when a DPIA would
be required, using these criteria:

  • A hospital processing its patients’ genetic and health data,
    as it involves sensitive data and vulnerable individuals. This may also be
    large scale, as discussed above.
  • The use of a camera system to monitor driving behaviour,
    including video analysis to single out cars and automatically recognise number
    plates. This involves systematic processing and technological solutions.
  • A company monitoring its employees’ activities, including
    their work station and internet activity. This involves systematic monitoring
    and vulnerable data subjects.
  • The gathering of public social media profiles to be used by
    companies to generate profiles for contact directories. This involves
    evaluation and large-scale processing.

When is a DPIA not required?

A DPIA is not required for projects where a high risk is not
likely. An initial risk assessment will need to be carried out (for specific
activities or categories of activity) to determine this. Examples within the DPIA
Guidelines of where a DPIA is unlikely to be needed are:

  • An online magazine using a mailing list to send a generic
    daily digest to its subscribers. This does not obviously involve any of the
    criteria listed above.
  • An e-commerce website displaying adverts for vintage car
    parts involving limited profiling based on past purchases behaviour on certain
    parts of its website. This involves evaluation, but is not systematic or

The ICO may also publish a list of activities for which no
DPIA is required (under Article 35(5)), though these may be subject to other
compliance rules or guidelines.

Article 35(10) also contains an exception for regulated
activities carried out pursuant to a legal obligation or public interest. A
DPIA may not be required if one has already been carried out as part of setting
the legal basis for those activities. Unfortunately, the DPIA Guidelines do not
provide any examples of when this applies.

Even where a DPIA is not required under Article 35, the
general principle of ‘accountability’ and obligations under Articles 24 and 25
should still be applied. These require data protection by design and by
default, and the ability to demonstrate compliance with the GDPR, taking into
account the risks involved. Therefore, whether or not in the form of a DPIA, some
level of risk and compliance assessment should be carried out for all new
systems or activities involving personal data. The results of these will also
assist in preparation and maintenance of records of processing activities under
Article 30.

One DPIA covering several similar projects

Article 35(1) allows a single DPIA to be used for similar
activities that present similar high risks. This means that similar projects in
different parts of an organisation, or at different times, or even by different
parties, could be covered by the same DPIA. This makes practical sense as there
is no need to re-invent the wheel each time.

For example, if you regularly carry out similar direct
marketing campaigns involving profiling, one DPIA could address the risks for
all such campaigns. Or, if several organisations are using similar technology,
one DPIA could assist all of them, or they may be able to draw on an assessment
undertaken by the technology provider. The DPIA Guidelines give a couple of

  • a group of municipal authorities each setting up a similar
    CCTV system;
  • a railway operator with video surveillance at all its train

Questions posed at project initiation can seek to identify
such similar activities within or outside of the organisation. Each controller
has its own responsibilities so should, of course, assess whether any previous
DPIA is sufficient to cover their specific needs and risks.

Existing processing operations as at 25th May 2018

The GDPR requires a DPIA to be carried out prior to the
relevant processing operations, for projects initiated after the GDPR applies,
from 25 May 2018. However, the DPIA Guidelines strongly recommend DPIAs for
processing operations already underway at that date. If you already have a DPIA
process up and running, it would in any case be wise to meet GPDR standards,
unless the relevant project is very short-term.

In addition, where there is a significant change to an existing
activity (eg changes to technology or the purposes of data use), this may in
itself require a DPIA.

The DPIA Guidelines recommend that, in any case, existing
projects are reviewed within three years of May 2018, consistent with reviews
of DPIAs, as discussed below.

What methodology should be used for a DPIA?

The DPIA Guidelines confirm there is no fixed methodology
for conducting a DPIA, and that organisations have flexibility to determine the
precise structure and form to fit with existing working practices. However, there
are minimum features which a DPIA should include, as defined by Article 35(7):

  • a description of the envisaged processing operations and the
    purposes of the processing;
  • an assessment of the necessity and proportionality of the
  • an assessment of the risks to the rights and freedoms of
    data subjects; and
  • the measures envisaged to address the risks and demonstrate
    compliance with the GDPR.

Those already following the ICO’s Code of Practice on
Privacy Impact Assessments can take comfort that it is listed within Annex 1 of
the DPIA Guidelines as a potential framework for DPIAs. The Guidelines also
encourage development of sector-specific frameworks.

Annex 2 of the DPIA Guidelines contains a list of criteria
to assess whether or not a particular DPIA or DPIA methodology is sufficiently
comprehensive to comply with the GDPR, including the minimum features set out

What are the risks which need to be assessed?

The risk assessment should focus on risks to individuals. Of
course, these risks may lead to associated risks for the organisation, such as
non-compliance, financial penalties and legal action. The DPIA Guidelines state
that risks primarily relate to rights of privacy, but may also involve other
fundamental rights such as freedoms of speech, thought and movement,
prohibition of discrimination, and right to liberty, conscience and religion.

The level of risk should take into account both the severity
of the impact, and the likelihood of such impact occurring. So, for example,
the consequences of a loss of sensitive data may be more severe than with a
loss of other data, and a system subject to minimal access controls may lead to
a higher likelihood of loss than a system with substantial access controls.
Taking both these factors into account, an overall level of risk may be

Consultation with data subjects

Article 35(9) of the GDPR requires consultation with data
subjects or their representatives where appropriate.  Unfortunately, we still have little guidance
on the interpretation of ‘where appropriate’, but the DPIA Guidelines do
consider how individuals’ views could be sought. They suggest internal or
external studies, or formal questions or surveys sent to staff, customers or
trade unions. Reasons should be documented if the final decision differs from
the views of data subjects, or if the views of data subjects are not sought.

Consultation with the ICO

Fortunately, the DPIA Guidelines provide some clarity on
when consultation with the ICO is required. The good news from the perspective
of project costs and timetables (and maybe also the ICO’s costs and timetables)
is that the requirement is not as wide as the potential interpretation I outlined
in my previous article. The DPIA Guidelines indicate that consultation is
needed where there is a high ‘residual’ risk; in other words a high risk that
has not been appropriately mitigated during the DPIA. This may arise, for
example, where the only identified solutions would compromise the aims of the

UK law may also require consultation with the ICO in
relation to a task carried out in the public interest, including processing in
relation to social protection and public health.

Ongoing reviews

The DPIA Guidelines highlight that carrying out a DPIA is a
continual process, not a one-time exercise. The DPIA should be updated
throughout the design and implementation of the project, and then reviewed
during the lifecycle of the project.

Article 35(11) of the GDPR, in particular, requires a review
to assess if processing is performed in accordance with the DPIA, at least when
there is a change in the risk involved. Risk profiles may be impacted, for
example, by changes to the project, such as the extent of the data used, or the
purposes of use; or by external factors, such as expectations or concerns of
individuals, advances in technology, or legal decisions and guidance. Examples
within the DPIA Guidelines include where the effects of certain automated
decisions have become more significant, new categories of individuals become
vulnerable to discrimination, or the data is intended to be transferred to a
country which has left the EU. On this latter point, Brexit may affect the
risks for many activities.

The DPIA Guidelines suggest that DPIAs should be re-assessed
after three years, perhaps sooner, depending on the nature of the processing,
the rate of change in the processing operation and the general circumstances.

Roles and responsibilities

It is the controller’s responsibility to carry out a DPIA,
though data processors involved with the activities should assist in accordance
with their contract with the controller (under Article 28(3) of the GDPR).

The data protection officer (DPO) (if one is appointed) must
provide advice and monitor the performance of the DPIA (under Articles 35(2)
and 39(1)), and should act as the contact point for consultation with the ICO
(under Article 39(1)).

The DPO Guidelines recommend that advice should be sought on
whether or not to carry out a DPIA, what methodology to follow, whether to
carry it out in-house or whether to outsource it, what safeguards to apply to
mitigate the risks, whether or not the DPIA has been correctly carried out, and
whether its conclusions comply with the GDPR. These tasks should be clearly
outlined, both in the DPO’s contract and within information provided to
employees, management and other stakeholders.

The DPO’s advice, and the decisions taken, should be
documented, and any departure from the DPO’s advice should be justified.

The DPIA Guidelines also suggest that other specific
responsibilities should be defined, including those of specific business units,
independent experts, the Chief Information Security Officer and/or the IT

Publication of a DPIA

Whilst publication of a DPIA is not a legal requirement, the
DPIA Guidelines suggest that publication of at least a summary should be
considered in order to help foster trust in the processing operations, and to
demonstrate accountability and transparency. This may be particularly good
practice for public authorities and where members of the public are affected.

Additional guidance

We are still awaiting other resources which may assist in
implementing DPIA requirements. These include the ICO’s lists of processing
activities which will require a DPIA (required under Article 35(4)) or which
will not require a DPIA (optional under Article 25(5)). The DPIA Guidelines are
intended to inform the preparation of these lists. We also do not yet have
clarity on codes of conduct which, if complied with, may be taken into account
in assessing data protection impacts (under Article 35(8)). There may also be
updates to the DPIA Guidelines following the (now expired) consultation period.

What to do now

Just as violent rejections of broccoli and the disappearance
of yummy items from my plate are now integrated into my mealtime procedures,
tailored processes for identifying whether DPIA is needed, assessing data
protection risks, and follow-up reviews can be integrated into project
management procedures. For those new to DPIAs, it is time to start testing out
methodologies which will work for you, taking into account the high risk criteria
and risk assessment guidance. Organisations which already have PIA or DPIA processes
should ensure their assessments meet GDPR standards, and consider how they will
build in additional procedural steps, such as ICO and DPO involvement.  DPIA practices will then be ready for action
by 25 May 2018.

Olivia Whitcroft is the principal of OBEP (, a law firm specialising in
technology contracts, data protection and intellectual property. Contact:,

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