Do I have to encrypt personal data to comply with GDPR?

This content is not intended to constitute legal advice. Specific legal advice should be sought before taking or refraining from taking any action in relation to the matters outlined. 

*Updated since first publication with additional resource from the ICO+++, main content remains unchanged.*

*** UPDATE 18 May 2018, NCSC advice: GDPR [Cyber] Security Outcomes ***

The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) do not mandate the use of encryption.  In fact, the word “encryption” only appears four times in the entirety of the 88 pages of the GDPR. On each occasion, it is used in a very similar context. See GDPR Article 32 (below) as an example.

However, the GDPR does propose a risk-based approach to compliance. Each organisation will need to document their approach to compliance. If an organisation chooses not to use encryption then they would need to demonstrate what alternative mechanisms they plan to use to safeguard client personal data.

We receive a lot of questions from members of the need to securely communicate with clients.

In this case, using the Post Office is a useful analogy. Most people are happy to entrust a simple letter to the Post Office for safe delivery.  However, if we wish to send a valuable item in the post we may choose to send the item via recorded delivery. In this case, we have evaluated the risk (of losing the contents of the letter) and have taken additional precautions.

What does that mean in practice?

If you do choose to implement appropriate technical and organisational measures to protect personal data then what are the next steps. There are a number of ways in which personal data can be protected.

  • Implement worthwhile cyber security (protecting data from the outset), this may include encrypting local hard drives.
  • Password and encrypt client files (Microsoft Office or PDF files) when transmitting files via email or sharing them via cloud-based data storage and sharing websites.
  • Password and encrypt compressed files or folders (using tools like WinZip) when transmitting files via email or sharing them via cloud-based data storage and sharing websites.
  • Using client portals (often used by insurance and pension providers) when exchanging data with clients.
  • Encrypt portable storage devices, such as flash drives, if they contain personal data. These devices are all too easy to lose.
  • Removal of the personal data that would identify a person and replacing with a reference code (pseudonymisation).

One of the principal aims of the GDPR is to be accountable as to how data is collected, used and processed. By taking a risk-based approach and documenting how personal data is being used and processed then an organisation will be able to demonstrate their approach to data protection if the needed arises.

Reference information

For clarity, the GDPR article 32 is reproduced below in its entirety.

Taking into account the state of the art, the costs of implementation and the nature, scope, context and purposes of processing as well as the risk of varying likelihood and severity for the rights and freedoms of natural persons, the controller and the processor shall implement appropriate technical and organisational measures to ensure a level of security appropriate to the risk, including inter alia as appropriate:

(a) the pseudonymisation and encryption of personal data;

(b) the ability to ensure the ongoing confidentiality, integrity, availability and resilience of processing systems and services;

(c) the ability to restore the availability and access to personal data in a timely manner in the event of a physical or technical incident;

  1. d) a process for regularly testing, assessing and evaluating the effectiveness of technical and organisational measures for ensuring the security of the processing.
  2. In assessing the appropriate level of security account shall be taken in particular of the risks that are presented by processing, in particular from accidental or unlawful destruction, loss, alteration, unauthorised disclosure of, or access to personal data transmitted, stored or otherwise processed.
  1. Adherence to an approved code of conduct as referred to in Article 40 or an approved certification mechanism as referred to in Article 42 may be used as an element by which to demonstrate compliance with the requirements set out in paragraph 1 of this Article.
  2. The controller and processor shall take steps to ensure that any natural person acting under the authority of the controller or the processor who has access to personal data does not process them except on instructions from the controller, unless he or she is required to do so by Union or Member State law.

Further resources

[+++ Added 12/03/18] Existing ICO guidance of encryption (PDF) can be found here.

Existing ICO guidance under the Data Protection Act: A practical guide to IT security: ideal for the small business

The ICO has launched new small business GDPR helpline in October 2017, which may prove useful.

Added 18 May 2018:

**** NCSC advice: GDPR [Cyber] Security Outcomes