Are we conducting too many DPIAs – or not enough?

October 2022

How to decide when to conduct Data Protection Impact Assessments

Make no mistake, Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs) are a really useful risk management tool. They help organisations to identify likely data protection risks before they materialise, so corrective action can be taken. Protecting your customers, staff and the interests of the business.

DPIAs are key element of the GDPR’s focus on accountability and Data Protection by Design.

It’s not easy working out when a DPIA is necessary, or when it might be useful, even if not strictly required by law. Businesses need to be in control of their exposure to risk, but don’t want to burden their teams with unnecessary work. So it falls to privacy professionals to use their judgement in what can be a delicate balancing act.

Lack of clarity around when DPIAs are genuinely needed could lead businesses to carry out far more DPIAs than needed – whilst others may carry out too few.

When are DPIAs required?

We should check if a DPIA is required during the planning stage of new projects, or when changes are being planned to existing activity. Where needed, DPIAs must be conducted BEFORE the new processing begins.

DPIAs are considered legally necessary when the processing of personal data is likely to involve a ‘high risk’ to the rights and freedoms of individuals.

What does ‘high risk’ look like?

Why types of activity might fall into ‘high risk’ isn’t always clear. Fortunately the ICO have given examples of processing likely to result in high risk to help you make this call. Regulated sectors, such as financial services and telecoms, have specific regulatory risks to consider too.

Give consideration to the scope, types of data used and the manner of processing. It’s wise to also take account of any protective measures already in place. In situations where the nature, scope, context and purposes of processing are very similar to another activity, where a DPIA has already been carried out, you may not need to conduct another.

Three key steps for a robust DPIA screening process

1. Engage your key teams

In larger organisations, building good relationships with key teams such as Procurement, IT, Project Management, Legal and Information Security can really help. They might hear about projects involving personal data before you do. Make sure they’re aware when a DPIA may be required. This means they’ll be more likely to ‘raise a hand’ and let you know when a project which might require a DPIA comes across their desk.

In smaller businesses there may still be others who can help ‘raise a hand’ and let you know about relevant projects. Work out who those people are.

2. Confirm the businesses appetite for risk

Is your organisation the sort which only wants DPIAs to be carried out when strictly required by law? Or perhaps you want a greater level of oversight? Choosing to carry out DPIAs as your standard risk assessment methodology for any significant projects involving personal data – even if they might appear to involve lower levels of risks to individuals.

Logic says you’ll never be 100% sure unless you carry out an assessment and DPIAs are a tried and tested way to give you oversight and confidence. But this approach requires more time, resources and commitment from the business. You need to strike the right balance for your organisation.

3. Adopt a DPIA screening process

If you don’t currently use a screening process, you really should consider adopting one. It’s a quick and methodical way to identify if a project does or does not require a DPIA.

You can use a short set of standard questions, which can be provided for stakeholders to complete and return or discussed in a call. So the question ‘Is a DPIA needed or not?’ can be reached rapidly and with confidence.

Personally I prefer to arrange a short call with the stakeholders, using my screening questionnaire as a prompt to guide the discussion.

Don’t forget to keep a record of your decisions! Including when you decide a DPIA isn’t necessary.

Try not to burden colleagues with unnecessary assessments for every project, if there really is minimal risk. This is unlikely to be a well-received approach. Raise awareness and have a built-in DPIA screening process to make sure you catch the projects which really do warrant a deeper dive.