Operationalizing Privacy: How Empowered Is Your Privacy Office?

Where should privacy professionals be positioned within the organization? 

What level of independence and authority do privacy officers need so that they can embed a value as complicated as privacy—at times in tension with a whole host of bottom-line commitments, from identifying terrorists to placing effective ads —into a complex organization? 

And if privacy is to be delivered through designs and defaults, as well as policy, where should privacy professionals be positioned within the firm?

While lots of folks speculate about these things from the outside, we are engaged in research involving almost one hundred interviews of leading privacy officers, regulators and other privacy professionals in the U.S. and four European countries—Germany, France, Spain and the UK—to find answers to these questions grounded in the actual experience of privacy professionals.

The draft EU Data Protection Regulation offers a view on some of these questions from a regulator’s perspective. It envisions a new and enhanced role for data protection officers (DPOs). While the breadth of the ultimate requirement is unclear, the initial proposal requires all public authorities, all companies with more than 250 permanent employees, and companies whose core business is or relies on intense data processing, to appoint a DPO.

DPOs are provided with independence, authority and job protection through provisions that prohibit direction from above, provide for direct reporting to management and protection against firing. The DPO is charged with advising the organization on its data protection obligations and monitoring compliance on the one hand, and facilitating interaction between the supervisory authority and the organization on the other. Finally, the draft regulation requires the DPO to address privacy through design and defaults, reflecting the growing interest of regulators, privacy advocates and privacy professionals in “Privacy by Design.”

These directions bode well for privacy protection.

Key Findings

Specifically, in our research on the role and position of privacy leads in Europe and the U.S., we have found that:

  • Privacy and data protection are most likely to be supported by personnel distributed and embedded throughout different business units, as well as targeted policies, procedures and decisional tools—the types of things that research suggests is most effective in promoting privacy in firm decisionmaking—in companies with powerful CPOs or DPOs who participate in, and affect, firm strategy, and
  • The privacy professionals who exercise such influence are those who report to senior management or the board, regularly interact with the board and enjoy a high degree of latitude in both defining what privacy and data protection requires of their firm and determining how to execute that vision;
  • While these successful CPOs had core staff, much of the work of instilling privacy into the firm’s ethos and activities was distributed out to a looser network of employees embedded within business and functional units, coupled with targeted privacy and data protection requirements for which specific business units were responsible.

Surprisingly, the two countries where we found these empowered and strategic professionals at the helm couldn’t be more different in terms of regulatory substance and form: Germany and the U.S.

And we’ll discuss what can be learned by this transatlantic confluence in our next two posts.

Written By

Deirdre Mulligan

Written By

Kenneth Bamberger


If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.
  • Peggy Mulligan Mar 8, 2013

    Great work Dee and Ken! Congratulations!

  • Mike Anderson Apr 19, 2013

    One thing that people rather underestimate is the potentially devastating effect of the higher limit (over 250 Employees), before a company data protection officer becomes mandatory, that the proposed EU regulation may impose on privacy compliance. Currently, in Germany the low limit is 9 (!) people. Statistics show that if the limit is raised to 250, then the vast majority of companies currently having a privacy officer, will no longer be required to do so. It is hard to see this as an enhancement. On the positive side, one should look at Privacy Compliance, along with Information Security as a benefit in its own right. The more attention one pays to these key areas, the more incentive we have to build robust, safe, secure and minimally invasive IT infrastructures. This can, and is increasingly, be seen as a positive differentiation argument/factor in a competitive business world.


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