Privacy impact assessment tools serve multiple purposes in IT security. One is compliance with industry and location-based regulations. The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) exists to identify and minimize risks to personally identifiable information (PII) of EU citizens. It necessitates routine assessments from all entities that interact with EU citizens’ PII. A privacy impact assessment, tool-assisted or otherwise, is one way to ensure GDPR compliance.
Privacy Impact Assessment and the GDPR
Enacted in 2018 and covering the data of every EU citizen, the GDPR represents a monumental change in the way organizations store, process, and share consumer data. The GDPR features stringent guidelines and rules, and it’s up to individual organizations to use all the available resources, such as privacy impact assessment tools, to meet these standards. To understand how a GDPR-focused privacy impact assessment can streamline compliance, consider:
- What is the purpose of a privacy impact assessment?
- How does a privacy impact assessment impact work?
How Privacy Impact Assessments Benefit Your Entire Organization
Privacy impact assessments are used to verify compliance with the GDPR. Per the GDPR, a data privacy impact assessment must be performed when processing data that poses a high risk to the rights or freedoms of any EU resident. This includes organizations that use data for:
- Scoring and profiling
- Automated legal decisions
- Systematic monitoring
- Merging or combining with other data
- PII of incapacitated or disabled individuals
- Biometric technology
- Transferring records countries outside the EU
- Hindering the rights of EU citizens
An assessment is generally not required if only one of these criteria is met. If several of them apply, it may be required. Regardless, a privacy impact assessment provides immense benefit to organizations irrespective of necessity. The most significant benefits include but are not limited to:
- An early warning system – A privacy impact assessment enables the identification of privacy risks, empowering mitigation and prevention before security events occur.
- Data breach prevention – Similarly, a privacy impact assessment can prevent costly data breaches by identifying weak links, such as particularly susceptible networks.
- Optimized decision-making – Privacy impact assessments should highlight the most significant risks facing your organization, indexed by the kinds of data impacted. So, they can and should inform all cybersecurity programs and training design decisions.
- Trust from clientele and personnel – A privacy impact assessment is one of the best ways to assure consumers and employees alike that you value all stakeholders’ privacy.
All told, privacy impact assessments are critical to seamless GDPR compliance. This is because they facilitate upholding the principles of data privacy, stipulated in Article 5, and the specific requirements for the assessments, detailed in Article 35. But even if an assessment or GDPR compliance (more broadly) is not required for your organization, they can still provide immense security ROI.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Privacy Impact Assessment
There are two primary means of performing a privacy impact assessment for your organization. Automated privacy impact assessment tools consolidate all the necessary software-based utilities and hardware solutions in one place. However, manual assessments—ideally conducted by qualified GDPR compliance experts—are far more versatile. They often employ a combination of pre-assembled privacy impact assessment tools and strategies for a more robust solution.
Most experts recommend a step-by-step approach to data privacy impact assessment. GDPR doesn’t specify a process, but the following five-step plan provides an apt data protection impact assessment example for most organizations’ needs.
Step 1: Initial Assessment
Start by performing an initial assessment of the entire organization, assuring that all data and data storage locations are accounted for and documented.
For all identified systems, questions such as, “Does it store, process, or transfer data from consumers in the EU?” are most useful. If the answer is yes, then they’re likely bound by the rules and regulations of the GDPR.
Even if they’re not, most organizations are bound to other compliance efforts that these assessments assist with, such as cardholder data safety (i.e., PCI-DSS), safeguards for protected health information (i.e., HIPAA), or other location-based codes (e.g., CCPA, NYDFS).
Step 2: Project Planning
Once your organization has determined what data it processes that may be subject to GDPR (or other) protections, it’s time to determine an action plan for assessing privacy impacts. Delegate tasks, prioritize assignments, and establish your general timeframe across internal assessors and external service providers.
For example, it may be beneficial to create a checklist for each data category to be assessed, applicable metrics, and reporting protocols.
Step 3: Privacy Impact Assessment
Now it’s time to perform the privacy impact assessment itself. The primary goal at this stage is to identify and document all risks that could impact the rights of a data subject relative to the PII that the organization processes. Documentation should include vulnerabilities and threats.
A vulnerability is any gap or problem in the processing or security protections for a given piece of data that a malicious actor could exploit. Threats comprise actors who could exploit vulnerabilities, along with the likely strategies or approaches they would take to do so. For GDPR purposes, these all relate to the rights of data subjects, outlined in Articles 12-23.
Critically, the assessment should also carefully document the specific characteristics of all risks and risk factors identified, preparing this data for swift indexing and cross-referencing. The next step (see below) will involve comparing risks to rank the degree and kind of impact each poses.
Step 4: Ranking Privacy Risks
Once all risks are identified and inventoried, it’s time to rank them. This is a complex and highly customizable process. Organizations should use any metrics relative to their privacy needs, specific characteristics of the data processed, and how it is processed.
For example, the sheer amount of processed data and variety of processes may pose inherent risks for smaller or growing organizations with less mature security systems. But for others, the specific sources of data or characteristics thereof (e.g., longer, more complex, or dynamic datasets) may result in more complex risk profiles—and higher rankings, as a result.
In any case, data privacy risks may be ranked relative to each other, according to an absolute scale, or both. The ultimate goal of this step is prioritizing the order in which identified risks will be addressed and defining the approaches for mitigating, reporting on, or otherwise addressing them.
Step 5: Reporting and Program Review
A formal report is made at the end of the privacy impact assessment. This document explains the purpose of a privacy impact assessment, how it benefits your organization, and changes that have been or will need to be implemented to address data privacy risks.
It’s important to remember that the privacy impact assessment process doesn’t end here.
This final step leads to further processes that address any existing or potential risks to data privacy. For example, if the assessment solely focused on GDPR-specific risks, the next steps might include broadening the scope to account for other regulations’ protections. Or, organizations may work to strategize and implement safeguards to eliminate risks, such as more stringent encryption or identification and authentication management.
Working with a managed security services provider (MSSP) before, during, and after the assessment will ensure optimal security ROI.
Meeting GDPR Standards With Routine Impact Assessments
While most automated privacy impact assessment tools include the steps outlined above, they often lack the flexibility and scalability of manual assessments. This is why many experts prefer a manual assessment to an automated tool—or manual oversight for tool-assisted privacy impact assessments.