Data protection’s role in complying with the GDPR: International Business and Trade Organisation IBTO
Data protection’s role in complying with the GDPR: International Business and Trade Organisation IBTO

Reasons vary for companies failing to comply with the GDPR. The single most common type of violation, however, involves Article 5 of the GDPR, which governs how businesses process and store personal data. To comply with Article 5, enterprises must protect data "against unauthorized or unlawful processing and against accidental loss, destruction or damage" while ensuring they don't retain PII longer than necessary.

Data protection plays such a critical role in GDPR compliance because of Article 5. The primary purpose of data protection is to mitigate the risk of unintended data modification or deletion. By deploying data protection measures, businesses help meet this core GDPR requirement.

In addition, GDPR mandates should inform how companies approach data protection to the extent that storing PII in data backups longer than necessary could potentially trigger a violation of Article 5. To remain compliant, businesses should ensure they are taking steps to avoid including non-anonymized personal data in backups and can justify why they're storing backup data that may contain PII.

Graphic showing the components of a data protection policy.
A data protection policy is the best defense against GDPR penalties and bad publicity.
Benefits of GDPR compliance
The key role that data protection plays in achieving GDPR compliance helps to explain why the benefits of complying extend beyond simply avoiding fines. Enterprises in compliance with the GDPR likely achieve several benefits.

  1. Enhanced business continuity
    Data protection technologies and procedures help companies ensure compliance with GDPR Article 5, which requires businesses to mitigate the risk of accidental loss of PII. But data protection also enhances business continuity in general by increasing the chances that organizations can recover critical systems and restore operations quickly following a data breach.
  2. Higher data ROI
    In a similar fashion, data that's protected as part of a GDPR compliance strategy is primed to deliver a higher return on investment to the business. Companies hurt themselves financially when they invest heavily in acquiring, processing and storing data only to lose that data permanently because they failed to invest in data protection measures, including backup and recovery. Protecting data will continue to drive ROI even if that data is lost or damaged so long as it's recoverable.
  3. Stronger data governance
    Data governance, which focuses on managing data availability, usability, security and integrity, helps businesses comply with regulations like the GDPR. GDPR-compliant businesses are likely to have a clear data governance strategy in place, along with controls to enforce that strategy. Companies in turn benefit because of their ability to find, process, protect and secure data in an efficient and scalable way -- not just for the sake of GDPR compliance, but to maximize and monetize data resources in general.
  4. Easy data migration
    GDPR compliance goes hand-in-hand with the ability to move data easily among systems. When businesses protect their data consistently as part of a GDPR compliance strategy, they implement data backup and recovery methods that can be used to migrate data from one platform to another. Moving a database currently hosted on premises into the cloud, for example, benefits from a reliable snapshot of that database using the tools deployed for data protection.
  5. Increased data discoverability and transparency
    Determining where PII exists to adequately protect it is an important step toward GDPR compliance. Discoverability and transparency capabilities better position an organization to locate, govern and secure all the data governed by the GDPR. In addition, the ability to find and access other data assets can further maximize monetization of data.
  6. Reputation for data stewardship
    Companies complying with the GDPR demonstrate to regulators, customers and partners that they take data protection seriously and are responsible stewards of data. GDPR compliance can also increase the trustworthiness of the brand and provide an edge over competitors that might be viewed by customers as less reliable protectors of personal data.

Emerging GDPR compliance challenges

While there are many clear benefits of investing in GDPR compliance strategies, procedures and technologies, be aware that GDPR compliance is becoming more challenging and therefore forcing businesses to modify their compliance techniques.

One emerging challenge is the impact of generative AI technology on GDPR compliance. Since the GDPR was written and enacted well before generative AI became mainstream, it remains unclear how regulators may interpret data processing and protection practices within the context of generative AI tools and technologies.

As a result, vendors like Microsoft have chosen to integrate generative AI into broader platforms to "provide guardrails around the models," wrote IDC research manager Alison Close in her report on the potential of generative AI in customer service. "The choice of OpenAI within Microsoft Azure," she added, as opposed to deploying OpenAI services on their own without compliance guardrails in place, "is to ensure data privacy and GDPR compliance."

Tracking PII across multiple environments is also a key challenge as more and more businesses adopt multiple clouds or IT platforms. In fact, it was the top GDPR compliance challenge in Europe as of 2022, according to IDC research manager Ralf Helkenberg. "Data visibility is essential to building privacy compliance," he wrote in his report on GDPR compliance challenges in Europe, "but keeping track of personal data across different business environments is proving difficult." Meeting this challenge, he reported, will require more extensive use of automated data discovery and classification tools.

Chris Tozzi is an adjunct research adviser at IDC as well as an adviser for Fixate IO and a professor of IT and society at a polytechnic university in upstate New York.

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