On May 25, 2018, the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will go into effect in Europe to help harmonize personal privacy rights across all 28 EU member states. Although individual countries can maintain their own privacy laws and impose additional penalties, GDPR establishes a common baseline of protections for citizens and residents of the EU and for collectors and processors of personal data — a set of common obligations and potential fines (up to 4% of global revenue per company per country).
Whose Data Is It, Anyway?
One of GDPR's innovations is the idea of institutionalizing a fundamental right to one's data. Under GDPR, every EU citizen and resident has a right to access, port, or erase their data. Companies that collect and process consumer or employee data — i.e., controllers — are effectively obligated to return an individual’s data upon request. GDPR reorients the balance of rights and obligations between a data owner and a data processor. People never lose their right to data about them or by them, while companies in turn are transformed into data custodians with new obligations for the data they steward on behalf of the data owners.
This new principle is nowhere more famously manifest than in the idea of the right to be forgotten. Although this concept preceded GDPR in Europe and elsewhere, GDPR elevates it and removes any ambiguity around the obligation. Under GDPR, EU citizens and residents have a fundamental right to have their data deleted upon request. There is no test as to whether the data is incorrect. The data belongs to the individual, who can do with the data as he or she sees fit.
What's the Point of Data Controllers without Data Controls?
For companies that collect and process personal information, this new right to one's data represents a sea change in how they view and manage their data. Since the inception of databases, personal data has been viewed more as a literal commodity as reflected in the terms used to describe where you keep it: data store, data warehouse, data lake. Understanding the identity of the data owner, inasmuch as it existed, served the primary purpose of personalization and prediction. It was — and largely remains — all about "analyze in order to monetize."
But GDPR helps put the "person" back in personal data. It reminds companies that the data belongs to an individual to whom they are accountable and for whom they must provide an accounting. Knowing a person’s data, however, has value beyond the intelligence. Data unknown isn't invisible; it’s just vulnerable to theft, misuse, and compromise. To meet the new GDPR requirements requires companies to find and inventory data by person. This in turn creates new opportunities for data protection, compliance, and governance. The right to be forgotten ultimately ensures that every person's data is not forgotten. Indirectly, the new personal data rights enable better safeguarding for personal data, whether it's a Social Security number or an IP address.
Data Driven Personal Data Governance & Protection
Regulations have historically helped companies focus their attention and their budgets. In the US, regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, HIPAA, and PCI, to name just a few, drove companies to reset priorities and rethink approaches to dealing with data and applications. Because the US is focused on industrialization, this has led to the adoption of new kinds of technology automation with acronyms including SIEM, SSO, DLP, DAM, and DRM. But every innovation answers its unique problem, and so these innovations all speak to a specific pain at a specific point in time. Individual rights to access, port, or erase their data speak to a new set of requirements and therefore a new set of data governance, protection, and compliance requirements.
While GDPR defines a new benchmark of regulations around personal privacy, it is not alone in driving this new era around personal data governance and protection. Many countries have instituted a similar right, including China. Similarly, in the US, several states are debating bills that would enshrine new rights for personal data. For companies, this means a new kind of data governance, protection, and compliance is required that can account for a person's data and ensure data accountability to that person. Not surprisingly, companies will need to be more accountable and transparent with the way they protect consumer data.