The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) seeks to protect the privacy of European Union (EU) residents in a globalized economy. GDPR rules govern how companies collect personal data about EU residents. They enforce core user rights and place individuals in control of their data. And they include data security provisions to report and prevent data breaches.

GDPR compliance is a core challenge for companies doing business with individuals in Europe. There are many aspects to consider when following EU privacy standards. This article will provide an easy-to-use checklist to simplify the compliance task.

Key takeaways

  • GDPR enhances personal privacy rights. It imposes a duty on companies to protect personal data. And it makes data breach reporting mandatory.
  • Key actions for businesses include raising staff awareness, auditing personal data, updating privacy notices, and reviewing procedures to support individuals' rights.
  • The GDPR introduces changes to subject access requests. Companies must know how to deliver information to users, what information is legally required, and the timescales for information provision.
  • GDPR also changes consent mechanisms and imposes new standards on data protection for children. Companies must request informed consent to store and use personal data.
  • Organizations must establish procedures for detecting, reporting, and investigating data breaches. They may need to conduct Data Privacy Impact Assessments (DPIAs). DPIAs assess information security risks for each project. 
  • If possible, companies should also appoint a Data Protection Officer (DPO). DPOs provide data protection advice and carry out DPIAs. They also act as a contact point for access and deletion requests.

Why is knowing how to be GDPR compliant important?

GDPR is a set of EU data protection standards that protect the privacy rights of EU residents. But it doesn't just apply within European boundaries. GDPR is an extra-territorial regulation. Any company collecting personal data from European individuals must be GDPR compliant.

Penalties for non-compliance with GDPR can be severe. For example, Amazon and Facebook/Meta have incurred hundreds of millions of dollars in EU fines. Regulators can even fine smaller companies 4% of their global turnover, which can have a highly damaging impact on business health.

Customers also see GDPR compliance as evidence that companies have robust privacy policies. Data controllers that behave recklessly with personal data will lose trust. This is not just true of European consumers. Customers worldwide want to deal with secure, responsible businesses.

What is a GDPR compliance checklist?

A systematic approach is crucial to ensuring GDPR compliance. Compliance checklists are tools that encourage a methodical approach.

Checklists include step-by-step suggestions about how to meet EU requirements. Following our GDPR compliance checklist allows you to cover critical compliance areas. And there should be no gaps that can result in regulatory penalties.

13 steps to GDPR compliance in 2024

13 steps to GDPR compliance

1. Carry out a personal data audit

GDPR compliance starts with data awareness. Companies must know what personal data they collect. They must know how they process individual data. They also need to understand how they store and dispose of data.

  • Categorize the data you hold. Divide personal data covered by GDPR from other forms of user information.
  • Determine whether you collect data from site visitors under 16 years of age.
  • Map your data storage locations and methods.
  • Create a register of who has access to sensitive data. Keep access at the lowest possible level while meeting business needs.
  • Audit third-party data handling. Do external partners handle data from users in the EU? If so, ensure they achieve General Data Protection Regulation compliance.
  • Assess your data retention policies. Keep data for as little time as possible and dispose of data securely.

During the data audit, consider the legal basis for processing. GDPR defines a series of lawful reasons for the use of personal data. Companies need to connect their data handling operations with these justifications and ensure that every process is justified.

2. Make your access policies GDPR-compliant

Under GDPR, data is not private if all employees can access user records. Organizations must manage access by assigning privileges to authorized users.

Only make data available to individuals with a business reason for requesting access. Otherwise, access management systems should block connections and log unauthorized access requests.

3. Update your data security policies

Companies need robust data protection controls to prevent data breaches and illegitimate access. GDPR best practices include encrypting personal data at rest and in transit. Protect data containers with firewalls and allow listing solutions.

Use VPNs or other forms of secure gateway to enable remote access. Also, put in place threat detection and sandboxing systems. These systems block malware and other intrusions and quarantine malicious agents before they can extract sensitive data.

4. Create a compliant privacy notice

Privacy policies must meet GDPR requirements. Companies must present these policies to all website visitors using clearly written privacy notices.

Data privacy compliance requires notices to include the following:

  • The legal basis for data collection
  • Contact details for your Data Protection Officer or other complaints authority
  • How individuals can raise privacy issues if they arise
  • How long do you retain data

The GDPR privacy notice should also include identity information about the data controller. The controller is responsible for meeting GDPR obligations and is usually identical to the company writing the privacy notice. Include the organization's full name, address details, and any other relevant contact information.

5. Align privacy and security policies with user rights

Visitors can then make informed decisions about whether they consent to data practices. Privacy policies support core user rights. Your privacy policy should include:

  • Measures to enable subject access. Visitors must be able to view their personal data and request changes.
  • Subject deletion requests. Customers should have the option of erasing personal data if desired.
  • Information about data sharing with marketers. Companies can use personal data in marketing operations. The privacy notice must detail any data-sharing practices.
  • Allowing marketing opt-outs. Customers must be able to block direct marketing using their private data.
  • Automated data handling. Individuals need to know about automated processing. They have the right to opt out of these processes.
  • Data portability. Users can move their data to other companies if needed. Privacy policies should explain how to do so and enable data transfers.

6. Check your consent processes

Requesting consent to process data is a critical aspect of meeting GDPR requirements. Regulated organizations must request consent before they do anything with PII. Companies must create a consent form that users see when they visit websites or engage with other corporate assets.

Consent forms must state what users are agreeing to. They need to include details like:

  • Tracking cookies that collect user data
  • Whether users agree to receive marketing emails
  • Any interactions with associated third parties

A best practice is using double opt-in procedures. Users should supply their email addresses and confirm their consent via a follow-up email. Companies also need to include the option of withdrawing consent. For example, via unsubscribe options at the base of marketing emails.

Cookie management is another core consent issue. Customers should be able to manage which cookies they agree to. Use a cookie banner on your website to inform users about the cookies you use. Include a preferences panel to manage user settings.

7. Audit third parties and make contracts GDPR-compliant

Under GDPR, third parties that handle data from EU-resident individuals must comply with privacy rules. Data controllers are almost always held responsible for compliance violations by third parties. So it is essential to ensure that partners follow EU rules.

Include GDPR compliance in third-party contracts. Check partners' privacy and data security policies. Ensure you know where they store data. Document data protection regulations that apply in those jurisdictions.

Contracts should cover the purpose of data sharing and processing. They should tightly control how third parties use personal data. They should also define how long third parties can keep data about users, and how that data is stored.

8. Check your policies for international data transfers

Data transfers outside EU borders must comply with GDPR. EU rules state that companies must carry out risk assessments for all international transfers.

Compliance teams should assess whether data flows to a secure destination. Do you have adequate safeguards for data storage systems? Does the end jurisdiction have robust privacy laws?

Customers should know the answers to these questions. Companies must inform users where their data travels and any privacy issues that these data flows generate.

9. Create systems to handle Data Subject Access Requests (DSARs)

Individuals resident in the EU can use Data Subject Access Requests to change or erase their personal data. Compliant organizations need processes to enable these requests.

In larger companies, DSARs can become complex and resource-intensive. Organizations also have a compliance timescale, with just a month to deliver the information users request.

Create streamlined procedures to consider every request:

  • Compare each query with GDPR criteria for legitimate requests.
  • Have a process to deny unfounded or frivolous DSARs.
  • Maintain databases that connect user accounts to personal data. Keep as little as possible to avoid burdensome DSARs.
  • Use automated tools to redact internal company data. Stick to personal data that could identify the individual.

10. Make sure website layouts and forms are compliant

Double-check your website assets. Identify any forms or links for visitors that can lead to the collection of personal data. Any web resource that gathers data must be GDPR-compliant. It must:

  • Automatically deliver a privacy notice before collecting data.
  • Include consent options to opt-in to data gathering.
  • Include opt-in options for messaging.

11. Prepare for data breaches

Incident response plans are critically important. Assume that leaks of personal data will happen. This approach makes it easier to put in place controls and policies to prepare for incidents.

  • Log data collection and processing actions.
  • Prepare for website downtime as you mitigate attacks.
  • Assign an officer to investigate every data exposure incident.
  • Notify regulators within 72 hours.
  • Create notification templates detailing the number of users affected and data types involved in the breach. Record actions you are taking in response.
  • Notify users affected by the breach. Provide guidance about what they can do. Provide contact details for your DPO.
  • Audit privacy and data protection policies to prevent future incidents.

12. Appoint officers to meet GDPR requirements

Some organizations may need to appoint a Data Protection Officer to handle GDPR requirements. This applies to all public bodies, but it also applies to companies that track large numbers of individuals.

In practice, larger companies operating in Europe will need a designated DPO. Smaller enterprises that gather personal data via their websites will probably also need one.

List your DPO in your privacy policy. Give them resources to manage DSARs. Your DPO should advise company officers about their compliance obligations. And they should report annually at an executive level, providing feedback about ongoing GDPR compliance.

13. Spread compliance best practices throughout the organization

Ensure that all employees are aware of GDPR requirements. Every employee should know how to handle personally identifiable information. They should know about privacy controls and the risks attached to improper data sharing.

Make privacy a core part of the company culture. Include GDPR awareness in initial employee training. Reassess staff knowledge annually and update training materials as required. Ensure that every staff member has access to privacy and security policies if needed.

Enforce a strict system of penalties for violation of the company privacy policy. Hold individuals to account if they breach GDPR guidelines and record any disciplinary procedures.

Next steps for GDPR compliance

In the digital age, authorities worldwide make data privacy a priority. And the EU is one of the most proactive authorities. European regulators impose strict limits on how organizations collect, use, and store data. And regulators can levy significant fines on companies that fail to comply.

Use our checklist to update your data-gathering systems, audit consent requests, privacy notices, and website layouts, create processes to fulfill subject access requests, allow users to control their data, and audit third parties to ensure they are meeting their compliance obligations.

Be proactive and take action. Avoid unnecessary penalties, and modernize your data processing practices to protect customer data.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and not legal advice. Use it at your own risk and consider consulting a licensed professional for legal matters. Content may not be up-to-date or applicable to your jurisdiction and is subject to change without notice.