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In praise of a privacy compliance program

Opening my newsfeed this morning I was not surprised to find an article about another data breach. Over the coming days I am sure we will discover that the organization’s policies were well defined, that training and awareness had taken place, and it was just that the procedures weren’t followed by one individual. The skeptic in me would say that if one person isn’t following procedures, there are probably others. To prevent situations like these, an organization must establish a privacy compliance regimen.

Compliance verification may not be exciting…

When I discuss privacy with my clients and my students, there is always a focus on the new law, the new technology, or the latest breach. Conversations usually turn to how policies and procedures will be impacted or how an awareness campaign needs to be established. These are all important discussions you should have. After all, it is where the excitement is in privacy. 

I try to steer the conversation by asking the question “how do you know your policies are being followed?” It is not unusual to hear that an informal approach is taken. Organizations rely on self-reporting by managers that there may be an issue, they rely on an ethics hot line for receiving anonymous reports, or they contend that Internal Audit or some other department has that oversight role.

Occasionally I here about a Privacy Impact Assessment process to provide the compliance review function. Sure, a PIA process may provide some insight, but how often does your privacy team conduct PIAs once a system or process is deployed?

…and it has costs…

Let’s face it, doing compliance verification is not a lot of fun. Like any audit or assessment, it takes time to plan and execute. It will take resources away from the organization’s daily, mission-centric activities. 

Plus, where do you start? Which of the departments do you look at first? What about the data processors? What other activities will need to stop in the privacy office to perform the reviews? And, of course, who is going to pay for it?

…but you are accountable.

If everything is working perfectly, deprecating compliance reviews may make sense. However I have yet to see an organization where there is not a department that has, let’s say, lessened the focus on privacy policies and procedures for the sake of operational efficiency.. 

It is important to note that modern privacy laws are requiring that education be provided for privacy policies as well as that an organization ensure that the laws are being met. For example, GDPR Article 39(2) says that a Data Protection Officer should “…monitor compliance with this Regulation, with other Union or Member State data protection provisions and with the policies of the controller or processor in relation to the protection of personal data, including the assignment of responsibilities, awareness-raising and training of staff involved in processing operations, and the related audits;

Then some incident occurs. The operational area involved claims they are doing their job and did not know they had privacy issues. Senior management wants to know why someone was not aware of the situation.  Regulators are knocking at the door as is the media. All eyes turn to the Privacy Officer.

Take the first step

Lack of compliance reviews exposes your organization to legal and reputation risk. Putting a compliance program in place with a combination of audits, assessments, and attestations will help reduce this exposure.

Start by risk ranking all the different departments, including data processors, who access personal information. If there is high risk in one area, consider performing an audit. If it is low risk, maybe attestation is sufficient. 

With limited resources, an approach to take is to review the riskiest areas plus two or three other departments on a rotating basis. Over time, you will cover your entire organization.