Data Protection - General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for Processors

Data Protection - General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for Processors


The new European General Data Protection Regulation (the “Regulation”) is in force and will apply to EU member states from 25 May 2018, replacing Directive 95/46/EC (the “Directive”). 

This note summarises the impact of the Regulation from a UK perspective on processors (those entities that process personal data on behalf of controllers), and on controllers who engage processors to process personal data on their behalf. The tern “process” is very wide and includes the use, holding or disclosure of personal data. If you would like to read about the Regulation more generally and about the potential effect of Brexit on its implementation in the UK, please see our general briefing note on the General Data Protection Regulation.

What has changed?

The Regulation places a number of obligations on processors. This is new. So, for the first time, processors may be liable for administrative fines and could be required to compensate data subjects (individuals whose personal data are being processed) for damage in certain circumstances.  Broadly-speaking, the larger the scale and risk to a data subject from the processing of their personal data, the more onerous the processor’s obligations will be.

It may be that businesses act as controllers in respect of their own personal data (for example, employee data) and processors in respect of certain other information (for example, customer information). In general, the distinction is that a controller determines the purposes for which and manner in which personal data are processed of the processing whereas the processor’s role is limited to processing the personal data on the controller’s instructions. Where businesses act as processors, they will need to consider the enhanced requirements of the Regulation and adjust their policies and procedures accordingly.

Key changes

  • Territorial scope: the Regulation will apply:
    • to the processing of personal data in the context of the activities of an establishment of a controller or a processor in the EU, regardless of where the processing takes place; and
    • to controllers or processors who are established outside of the EU, where the processing activities are related either to:
      • the offering of goods or services to EU data subjects; or
      • the monitoring of EU data subjects’ behaviours within the EU.

Processors established outside of the EU who are engaged in more risky processing are required to appoint a representative in the EU. 

  • Who can be a processor?: controllers must use processors who provide sufficient guarantees to implement and meet the appropriate technical and organisational measures and systems required by the Regulation. Processors will need to consider, for example, whether their IT systems are set up to deal with data subject requests (for example, that data can be erased or transferred to other providers – see our main note which sets out some of the new data subject rights).  Processors may be able to demonstrate their suitability by following approved codes of conduct or joining certification schemes published and made available under the new regime.
  • Data security: the Regulation requires processors to take appropriate technical and organisational measures to ensure a level of security appropriate to the risk.  Those measures include, where appropriate:
    • the pseudonymisation and encryption of personal data;
    • the ability to ensure the ongoing confidentiality, integrity, availability and resilience of systems and services processing personal data;
    • the ability to restore the availability and access to data in a timely manner in the event of a physical or technical incident; and
    • a process for regularly testing, assessing and evaluating the effectiveness of technical and organisational measures for ensuring the security of the processing.

In deciding what measures to take, processors may take into account (amongst other things) the costs of implementation and the level of risk presented by their processing. 

The processor must notify the controller of security breaches without undue delay.

  • Responsibility for sub-contractors: a processor must not sub-contract its processing activities without the prior written authorisation of the controller. The processor must pass on the obligations under the processing contract to the sub-processor and will remain fully liable to the controller for the performance of the sub-processor’s obligations. The processor must inform the controller if it intends to add or replace any sub-processors, so the controller has an opportunity to object.
  • Requirement to keep records: processors (and, where applicable, their representatives) must keep records of the processing they undertake and other records, including details of the security measures taken, any transfers of data outside of the EEA and the controllers on behalf of whom they process personal data.  Organisations with fewer than 250 employees (“SMEs”) will be exempt from this requirement, unless the processing is likely to result in risk to the rights and freedoms of data subjects, the processing is not occasional or the processing involves sensitive personal data or personal data relating to criminal convictions and offences.  The records must be made available for the regulator (in the UK, the ICO) upon its request.
  • Requirement to appoint a data protection officer: businesses whose core activities consist either of the regular, systematic and large-scale monitoring of data subjects, or the large-scale processing of sensitive personal data or personal data relating to criminal convictions and offences, will need to appoint a data protection officer with “expert” knowledge of data protection law and practices.  The data protection officer’s role involves (amongst other things) monitoring the business’ compliance with its own policies, the Regulation and other applicable data protection provisions, and acting as liaison with the regulator and data subjects where necessary.  The chosen individual could be either a member of the existing staff who has received special training or hired in specifically if is no one suitable for the position internally.  The Article 29 Working Party (a body composed of representatives of the national data protection authorities amongst others) has issued guidelines and FAQs which clarify when a data protection officer will need to be appointed, who can carry out the role and what it entails.
  • Data transfers: under the Regulation, controllers and processors must provide adequate safeguards for data being transferred outside the EEA to countries which are not on the European Commission’s adequacy list, for example by making use of existing measures such as binding corporate rules and standard contractual (“model”) clauses or following approved codes of conduct or certification schemes issued under the new regime.
  • Penalties: the maximum fine for a number of breaches of the Regulation (whether a controller or a processor) is EUR 20 million or 4% of annual worldwide turnover in the previous financial year, whichever is higher.  For other breaches, the maximum fine is the greater of EUR 10 million and 2% of annual worldwide turnover in the previous financial year. For example, breaches of the data security obligations fall within the lower band (EUR 10m/ 2%), whereas breach of the data transfer requirements would be within the upper limit (EUR 20m/ 4%). 
  • Liability for compensation: in addition to fines, processors that breach their obligations could be liable to compensate data subjects who suffer “material or non-material damage” as a result.  Where a controller and a processor are involved in the same processing and are responsible to a data subject for damage caused by the processing, either could be held liable for the entire damage.  However, this would not prevent a party that had paid the full sum from claiming back from the other party a proportion of the compensation (corresponding to the part of the damage for which the other party was responsible).  The Regulation provides that controllers are liable for damage caused by processing which does not comply with the Regulation, whereas processors are only liable for damage caused by breaches of processor obligations specifically, or caused by processing that is outside, or contrary to the lawful instructions of the controller.  A controller or processor would avoid liability, if it were able to prove that it was not “in any way” responsible for the event giving rise to the damage.
  • Processing contracts: where a processor processes personal data on behalf of a controller, the Regulation requires there to be a contract between the controller and the processor which sets out the:
    • subject matter and duration of the processing;
    • nature and purpose of the processing;
    • type of personal data and categories of data subjects;
    • obligations of the processor including to:
      • process the personal data only on documented instructions from the controller;
      • ensure that persons authorised to process the personal data have committed themselves to confidentiality or are under an appropriate statutory obligation of confidentiality;
      • take data security measures;
      • observe the rules in relation to sub-contractors;
      • assist the controller by appropriate technical and organisational measures, insofar as this is possible, for the fulfilment of the controller’s obligation to respond to requests for exercising the data subject’s rights;
      • assist the controller in ensuring compliance with its own security obligations including in respect of data breaches and risk assessments;
      • at the choice of the controller, delete or return all the personal data and copies to the controller after the end of the processing services, unless required by law to store the data; and
      • make available to the controller all information necessary to demonstrate compliance with these obligations and allow for and contribute to audits, including inspections, conducted by the controller or another auditor mandated by the controller.

Final thoughts

Although processors will be directly liable and answerable to the regulator, given the potential size of fines, a controller may want to ensure that it is adequately protected from the acts and omissions of its processor.  As a result, processors may begin to face more stringent obligations in their contracts with their controllers.  That said, and again given the potential size of those fines, processors themselves may begin to focus more on limiting their contractual liability, and ensuring a number of the data protection obligations apply mutually. 

For further information on the Regulation and general data protection advice, please contact Beverley Flynn on +44 (0) 1483 734264, Gary Parnell on +44 (0)1483 734269 or a member of the commercial team at Stevens & Bolton.


This information is necessarily brief and is not intended to be an exhaustive statement of the law.  It is essential that professional advice is sought before any decision is taken.

© Stevens & Bolton LLP January 2017

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