General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

What is GDPR exactly?

GDPR can be considered as the world's strongest set of data protection rules, which enhance how people can access information about them and places limits on what organisations can do with personal data. The full text of GDPR is an unwieldy beast, which contains 99 individual articles.

The regulation exists as a framework for laws across the continent and replaced the previous 1995 data protection directive. The GDPR's final form came about after more than four years of discussion and negotiations – it was adopted by both the European Parliament and European Council in April 2016. The underpinning regulation and directive were published at the end of that month.

GDPR came into force on May 25, 2018. Countries within Europe were given the ability to make their own small changes to suit their own needs. Within the UK this flexibility led to the creation of the Data Protection Act (2018), which superseded the previous 1998 Data Protection Act.

The strength of GDPR has seen it lauded as a progressive approach to how people's personal data should be handled and comparisons have been made with the subsequent California Consumer Privacy Act.

Who does GDPR apply to?

At the heart of GDPR is personal data. Broadly this is information that allows a living person to be directly, or indirectly, identified from data that's available. This can be something obvious, such as a person's name, location data, or a clear online username, or it can be something that may be less instantly apparent: IP addresses and cookie identifiers can be considered as personal data.

Under GDPR there's also a few special categories of sensitive personal data that are given greater protections. This personal data includes information about racial or ethic origin, political opinions, religious beliefs, membership of trade unions, genetic and biometric data, health information and data around a person's sex life or orientation.

The crucial thing about what constitutes personal data is that it allows a person to be identified – pseudonymised data can still fall under the definition of personal data. Personal data is so important under GDPR because individuals, organisations, and companies that are either 'controllers' or 'processors' of it are covered by the law.

"Controllers are the main decision-makers – they exercise overall control over the purposes and means of the processing of personal data," the UK's data protection regulator, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) says. It's also possible that there are joint controllers of personal data, where two or more groups determine how data is handled. "Processors act on behalf of, and only on the instructions of, the relevant controller," the ICO says. Controllers have stricter obligations under GDPR than processors.

Although coming from the EU, GDPR can also apply to businesses that are based outside the region. If a business in the US, for instance, does business in the EU then GDPR can apply and also if it is a controller of EU citizens.

What are GDPR's key principles?

At the core of GDPR are seven key principles – they're laid out in Article 5 of the legislation – which have been designed to guide how people's data can be handled. They don't act as hard rules, but instead as an overarching framework that is designed to layout the broad purposes of GDPR. The principles are largely the same as those that existed under previous data protection laws.

Data minimisation

The data minimisation principle isn't new, but it continues to be important in an age when we are creating more information than ever. Organisations shouldn't collect more personal information than they need from their users. "You should identify the minimum amount of personal data you need to fulfil your purpose," the ICO says. "You should hold that much information, but no more."

The principle is designed to ensure organisations don't overreach with the type of data they collect about people. For instance, it's very unlikely that an online retailer would need to collect people's political opinions when they sign-up to the retailer's email mailing list to be notified when sales are taking place.

Integrity and confidentiality (security)

Under 1998's data protection laws, security was the seventh principle outlined. Over 20 years of being implemented a series of best practices for protecting information emerged, now many of these have been written into the text of GDPR.

Personal data must be protected against "unauthorised or unlawful processing," as well as accidental loss, destruction or damage. In plain English this means that appropriate information security protections must be put in place to make sure information isn't accessed by hackers or accidentally leaked as part of a data breach.


Accountability is the only new principle under GDPR – it was added to ensure companies can prove they are working to comply with the other principles that form the regulation. At it simplest, accountability can mean documenting how personal data is handled and the steps taken to ensure only people who need to access some information are able to. Accountability can also include training staff in data protection measures and regularly evaluating and data handling processes.

The "destruction, loss, alteration, unauthorised disclosure of, or access to" people's data has to be reported to a country's data protection regulator where it could have a detrimental impact on those who it is about. This can include, but isn't limited to, financial loss, confidentiality breaches, damage to reputation and more. In the UK, the ICO has to be informed of a data breach 72 hours after an organisation finds out about it. An organisation also needs to tell the people the breach impacts.


What is GDPR? The summary guide to GDPR compliance in the UK

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Data controllers and data processors: