The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is one of the world's most stringent data protection laws, designed to safeguard individuals' personal data in Europe. Since its implementation in May 2018, GDPR has significantly impacted how organizations collect, store, and process personal data.

Noncompliance with GDPR can lead to severe penalties, including hefty fines and reputational damage, making it imperative for organizations to understand and adhere to its requirements. This blog explores penalties associated with GDPR noncompliance, real-life examples of violations, and practical strategies to ensure compliance.

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What is the GDPR?

The General Data Protection Regulation is a comprehensive data protection law implemented by the European Union to safeguard individuals' personal data and privacy. The GDPR aims to give EU citizens greater control over their personal data, harmonize data protection laws across EU member states, and reshape how organizations handle data privacy. The GDPR applies to any organization that processes the personal data of individuals within the EU, regardless of the organization's location.

Key components of GDPR

The GDPR contains various components that collaborate to form a comprehensive data protection law, ensuring privacy and safeguarding individuals’ personal data.

Key components of the GDPR include:

  • Scope and territorial reach: The GDPR applies to all organizations, including data controllers, processors, and certification bodies, processing the personal data of individuals in the EU, regardless of where the organization’s headquarters resides.
  • Principles of data processing: The law emphasizes lawfulness, transparency, data minimization, accuracy, storage limitation, and security.
  • Accountability: Organizations must demonstrate compliance with GDPR principles or face penalties for noncompliance.
  • Data subject rights: Individuals have rights to access, rectification, erasure, restriction, data portability, and objection.
  • Consent: The GDPR states that consent must be freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous (typically via a privacy notice). Individuals can withdraw their consent or object to data processing based on legitimate interest at any time.
  • Data Protection Officer (DPO): Certain organizations are required to establish a DPO to oversee GDPR compliance.
  • Data breach notification: Organizations must notify authorities within 72 hours of a breach.
  • Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs): DPIAs are required when organizations process data likely to pose a high risk to an individual's rights and freedoms.
  • International data transfers: The GDPR includes rules to ensure data protection when transferred outside the EU.
  • Fines and penalties: Depending on the severity of the infringement, types of personal data involved, and other mitigating factors, entities found to be non-compliant can face significant fines.

Common GDPR violations

Organizations, whether inside or outside of the EU, must comply with the GDPR if they process any personal data of EU citizens. GDPR infringements are a significant issue that can arise if organizations fail to take the necessary steps to ensure compliance.

Common examples of GDPR violations include:

  • Inadequate data security (including biometric security controls)
  • Lack of lawful basis for data processing
  • Insufficient transparency
  • Failure to obtain valid consent
  • Noncompliance with data subject rights
  • Improper data breach notifications
  • Inadequate measures for international data transfers

GDPR violations can result from unencrypted data, insufficient access controls, and poor record-keeping, among other shortcomings. Failure to comply with the GDPR often results in severe penalties, which can affect organizational reputation, financial stability, and business continuity.

Penalties for GDPR noncompliance

If an organization doesn’t comply with the GDPR, Data Protection Authorities (DPAs) within the European Union may decide to impose a penalty. Each EU state has its own supervisory authority responsible for monitoring and GDPR enforcement within its jurisdiction. Examples of these authorities include The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) in the United Kingdom, The Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL) in France, Garante, the Italian Data Protection Authority, and the Data Protection Commission in Ireland.

These authorities can investigate complaints, conduct audits, and take enforcement actions. GDPR penalties range from basic fines to corrective actions, emphasizing why organizations must understand and comply with the GDPR to protect individual privacy rights.

Fines

The administrative fines associated with non-compliance with the General Data Protection Regulation are proportionate to the violation's severity and act as a deterrent. The GDPR sets out a tiered approach to fines, which means that the severity of the fine depends on the nature of the violation.

  • Lower-tier fines: A maximum fine of up to €10 million or 2% of the prior financial year's annual global turnover, whichever is higher.
  • Higher tier fines: A maximum fine of up to €20 million or 4% of the prior financial year's annual global turnover, whichever is higher.

The size of the fine is adjusted based on the duration of the infringement, any actions taken to follow approved codes of conduct, a history of previous infringements, and the categories of data affected.

Notable examples of GDPR fines include Meta, who was fined a record $1.2 billion by the Irish Data Protection Commission for transferring European Facebook user data to the United States without adequate protection. Other companies that have faced fines due to GDPR noncompliance include Amazon, WhatsApp, TikTok, and other notable technology entities.

Legal actions

Legal actions are a significant consequence of GDPR non-compliance, as individuals whose data privacy rights are violated can bring lawsuits against organizations. These legal actions can result in substantial compensation claims, additional legal costs, and court-mandated sanctions.

For instance, In 2020, a group of European consumer organizations started legal proceedings against Google. They claimed that Google's location-tracking practices were violating GDPR. The complaints were filed in several countries, arguing that Google had not obtained valid consent for tracking users' locations, which infringed on their privacy rights. These legal actions show the financial and reputational risks of not complying and highlight the increasing vigilance and empowerment of data subjects under GDPR.

Corrective actions

Data protection authorities (DPAs) utilize enforcement measures known as corrective actions to ensure that organizations comply with GDPR. These organizational measures can involve instructing entities to fix, limit, or delete data, placing temporary or permanent restrictions on the processing of personal data, and mandating the implementation of specific data protection measures.

A prominent example of corrective action took place in 2020 involving H&M. The Hamburg DPA imposed a fine of €35.3 million due to H&M's extensive and illegal monitoring of employees. The DPA's investigation discovered that H&M had been gathering detailed personal information about employees' private lives, including health data, without a proper legal basis. As part of the corrective actions, H&M introduced comprehensive measures to enhance data protection practices, ensure compliance with GDPR principles, and prevent future violations.

Additional consequences

Beyond legal and financial penalties, non-compliance with GDPR can have severe additional consequences for organizations, including reputational damage, operational impact, and increased scrutiny.

Reputational damage occurs when an organization's failure to protect personal data becomes public knowledge, leading to a loss of trust among customers, partners, and stakeholders. Operational impact involves the disruption of business functions as organizations must allocate resources to address compliance failures, implement corrective measures, and respond to investigations and audits. Organizations found to be non-compliant may face more frequent audits and inspections, leading to ongoing regulatory pressure and potential additional compliance costs.

An example of these cumulative impacts is British Airways, which faced a substantial fine and a significant hit to its reputation and operational efficiency following a major data breach in 2018. The airline had to overhaul its data protection practices and deal with heightened scrutiny from regulators and the public.

Strategies to stay GDPR-compliant

Organizations must stay GDPR compliant to protect personal data, avoid significant fines, and uphold customer trust. By implementing effective strategies, organizations can ensure that they adhere to GDPR principles and are prepared to address potential data protection challenges. The following sections describe key strategies organizations can use to improve their data protection practices and remain compliant with GDPR.

Related: 10-Step Checklist: GDPR Compliance Guide

Prioritize data protection by design and by default

Prioritizing data protection by design means integrating data protection principles into every aspect of an organization's operations. This approach involves considering data privacy and security during the early stages of any project or system development rather than as an afterthought. Organizations should collect and process only necessary data and restrict access to special categories of data to authorized personnel only.

By incorporating data protection measures into the design of systems and processes, organizations can minimize the risk of data breaches and show proactive commitment to GDPR compliance. Additionally, using privacy-enhancing technologies and regularly reviewing and updating these measures can further strengthen an organization's data protection framework.

Conduct regular Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs)

Organizations must regularly conduct Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs) to identify and mitigate risks related to data processing activities. DPIAs help evaluate how data processing operations impact individuals' privacy and ensure the necessary measures are in place to protect their rights. This process involves analyzing the nature, scope, context, and purposes of data processing and assessing potential impacts on data subjects.

By identifying data risks early, organizations can implement necessary safeguards to minimize harm and comply with GDPR requirements. DPIAs should be conducted not only for new projects but also for existing processes whenever significant changes occur. Regular reviews of DPIAs help maintain ongoing compliance and address emerging threats in the data protection landscape.

Implement robust security measures

Implementing strong security measures to protect personal data from unauthorized access, loss, or breaches is essential. Organizations should take a comprehensive approach to data security by incorporating technical, administrative, and physical controls.

These controls include encryption, access controls, secure data storage, regular security audits, and incident response plans. Encryption ensures that data remains unreadable to unauthorized parties. Access controls limit data access to only those who need it for their roles, reducing the risk of internal breaches. Regular security audits help identify vulnerabilities and ensure that security practices are up-to-date. An effective incident response plan provides a swift and coordinated response to data breaches, minimizing potential damage and demonstrating regulatory compliance.

Conduct regular training and awareness

Regular training and awareness programs are vital for establishing a culture of data protection within an organization. Employees at all levels need to understand GDPR requirements, their responsibilities in maintaining compliance, and best practices for data protection. Training programs should include topics such as data handling procedures, recognizing and responding to data breaches, and the significance of upholding data privacy.

Regular updates and refresher courses inform employees about the latest regulations and threats. By integrating data protection into the organizational culture, employees become proactive defenders of personal data, reducing the likelihood of accidental breaches and improving overall compliance.

Implement continuous monitoring and auditing

It is critical to continuously monitor and audit to ensure ongoing compliance with GDPR and to identify potential issues before they become larger problems. Organizations should establish regular audit schedules to review data processing activities, assess compliance with GDPR requirements, and verify the effectiveness of data protection measures. Automated monitoring tools can help track data flows, detect anomalies, and flag potential compliance violations in real time.

Continuous monitoring ensures any deviations from compliance standards are quickly identified and addressed. Regular audits provide an opportunity to evaluate the adequacy of existing measures, make necessary adjustments, and stay ahead of evolving data protection challenges.

Ensure transparency with clear communication

To comply with GDPR, organizations need to maintain transparency through clear communication. They must provide data subjects with easily understandable information about how their data is collected, used, stored, and shared. Write privacy policies in plain language and make them easily accessible on websites and other communication platforms.

Additionally, organizations must ensure that consent requests are clear and specific so that individuals can make informed decisions about their personal data. Transparent communication helps build trust with customers and demonstrates a commitment to respecting their privacy rights. Furthermore, it assists organizations in meeting GDPR's requirements for informed consent and data subject rights, reducing the likelihood of regulatory scrutiny and penalties.

UpGuard helps businesses remain GDPR-compliant

UpGuard assists businesses in maintaining GDPR compliance by identifying and addressing specific security vulnerabilities that impact the regulation. Our GDPR questionnaire template enables businesses and organizations to assess their GDPR compliance and any third parties they work with within their supply chain.

UpGuard also enables businesses to track third-party compliance against popular regulations by mapping risk assessment responses to security controls. This mapping helps identify compliance gaps, placing third parties at a higher risk of regulatory fines and data breaches.

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