GDPR Encryption Requirements

What is GDPR?

GDPR is basically a set of regulations that were created by the EU, aimed at giving its citizens more control over the personal data that they give to organisations. It essentially gives them the power to control how these organisations use the data. The law also establishes a baseline level of individual rights as well as data protection for the data subjects to enjoy. To be specific, the GDPR law requires the organisations processing personal data to notify the data subjects on how the processing is being done, and also justify the reasons for collecting and storing the data in the first place. As soon the organisation achieves what it wanted, and no longer needs the data, the GDPR regulations require the organisation to delete the data.

Data security

Now, data security, which is always a challenge to many organisations, is also one of the aspects that have been given weighty consideration under the new regulations. As per the new regulations, any organisation that falls under the GDPR scope is required to secure sensitive data against data breaches, mostly defined as unlawful or accidental destruction, loss, unauthorised disclosure of or access to, or alteration of personal data collected, stored, or processed by the organisation. This is where data encryption comes into place! in this article, we will tell you more about GDPR encryption, and explaining how a business stands to benefit from it, and also what the requirements are. First:

What is data encryption?

In very simple words, data encryption refers to the translation of data in various different forms that can only be deciphered, or decrypted, using a special key. The data that is encrypted is known as cipher-text, whereas the unencrypted data is referred to as plaintext. Now, encryption of data is one of the most common and effective ways for organisations to maximise data security and also enable secure communications. The main aim of encryption is to protect the digital data confidentiality of organisations, given that a majority of them use insecure internet or insecure computer networks to transmit data. Also, unencrypted data is risky to store, since it can jeopardise confidentiality, and make it vulnerable to cyber-attacks.

Encryption algorithms do play a crucial role in ensuring maximum security of data and communication. They essentially provide quite a number of benefits such as confidentiality as well as other crucial security benefits, which includes authentication, file integrity, not to mention non-repudiation.

Data encryption requirements in GDPR regulation

For starters, we must state that data encryption is not a mandatory requirement under the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation). However, it is mentioned a couple of times within the regulation, but each time, it has been mentioned as a recommendation. At first, it has been mentioned in recital 83, which states that for an organisation, or better yet, data processors and controllers, to observe GDPR compliance and also maximise data security, where they evaluate any risks inherent in data processing and then take steps towards mitigating them, such as data encryption.

Encryption also appears in another article, this time as an effective technical measure. In article 6, section 4e, states that the existence of proper safeguards, which may include pseudonymization or encryption, is one of the things organisations should take into account when it comes to ascertaining data processing for a different purpose other than the one for which it was initially collected, is compatible at all. Data encryption also makes an appearance in article 32, 1a, which is all about the security of processing. Here, the law reiterates that considering the state of the art, the implementation costs, and also the scope, nature, context, and purposes of the processing, not to forget the risks and severity that it has for the rights and freedoms of the data subjects, the data controllers and processors should implement both organisational and technical measures in order to guarantee a level of security appropriate to the current risk. It continues to state that these measures could include, among many other things, encryption and pseudonymization of personal data.

Finally, under the regulation, on Article 34, talks about the communication of a data breach to the affected data subjects. Under the regulation, it is stated that communication to the affected individuals will not be required, as long as the organisation did implement both organisational and technical measures, and were applied to the data that has been breached, particularly the ones that rendered the data unintelligible to the attacker, such as encryption.

So, as you can see, the framers of the GDPR law did underline the importance of data encryption, which explains its recommendation in the regulation a couple of times.

Data encryption in GDPR compliance

Before we take a look at how encryption helps in GDPR compliance, how about we take a look at why compliance is crucial in the first place?

Now, in as much as GDPR is more of an EU regulation, it could easily be applied to organisations based abroad as well. This is because, any organisation that handles and uses personal data from EU citizens and residents must comply with the GDPR terms and conditions. Failure to comply will attract very steep penalties, which could go up to 20 million euros – which is about 25 million USD – or 4 percent of the company’s annual global revenue – whichever is higher.

According to the law, any data breaches must be communicated to the data subjects within 72 hours from the moment you became aware of it. Failure to do this is tantamount to GDPR violation and will certainly lead to penalties. Now, other than the being-penalised aspect of the regulations, observing GDPR compliance will certainly give you a competitive advantage, especially when it comes to dealing with vendors and partners. Since a majority of the EU citizens are aware of GDPR regulations, they are now more alert and now know what to expect from any organisation that collects personal data from them. That being said, other companies dealing with EU customers will always require you to be GDPR compliant as well for them to engage in business with you.

Also, by being compliant with the regulations, you will be able to understand your internal data processes much better, and have a better sense of the data available to you, what to do with it, where to keep it, and how long to need to keep it. In the end, having the data in a more centralised location, so as to comply with the GDPR regulation, will in turn help in making your organisation more efficient. This will certainly have better positive impacts on your business performance and productivity.

Now, why is encryption crucial for GDPR compliance?

First and foremost, we have already mentioned that there are no explicit GDPR encryption requirements and that the law leaves it to the organisations to determine what security measures and safeguards they should enforce to guarantee safety for the data. however, it does recommend encryption as an appropriate organisational and technical measure that would safeguard personal data. So, why is it so crucial?

For starters, data encryption is a very powerful data security technique, whereby data is converted or encoded into an unintelligible format that could only be accessed by those who are authorised – unauthorised persons cannot access it, which is the primary purpose of GDPR. For this to happen, the encryption software uses several cryptographic keys, where each key contains a string of characters – numbers and letters – which encrypts the original data – plaintext – into an encrypted format referred to as cipher-text, which can only be read if they are decrypted. You will still use the keys to convert the cipher-text back into the readable plaintext.

Now, this aspect of requiring a valid cryptographic key to decrypt data back to being readable and usable, is what makes data encryption such a crucial method of protecting personal data, from data breaches, and thus GDPR compliance by organisations. Also, remember the rule that states that you need to notify the data subject immediately after discovering a data breach? If you encrypt data, then you won’t have to comply with this obligation. This is because, the data is basically unreadable and unusable to the attacker.

Best data encryption practices

By now, you probably agree with us that data encryption is certainly a super important part of any organisation’s personal data security. But, let us ask ourselves, how can we implement data encryption in the best way possible so as to avoid any mishaps or loopholes that would expose the organisation to data breaches? Here are a few best practices that we believe will go a long way in helping you get an efficient data encryption system:

Keep your encryption key secure – the very first thing you should do – which is obvious – is to ensure the crucial key is kept safe at all times. This practice is very critical since a simple blunder with the key and it falls into the wrong hands will most certainly put the encrypted data at great risk. You have to keep the key in a place no one would even notice; probably separate from the rest of the data. You also need to limit the number of users who can access the key, and lastly, make sure that you keep rotating the keys on a schedule.

Be sure to encrypt the sensitive data first – when it comes to data security, it is paramount to ensure that all the data, especially the sensitive data, is encrypted. It doesn’t matter how safe you think it is, encryption is very important! Leaving it unencrypted will be like inviting attackers to gain access to it. So, you must make it harder for it to be breached.

Always assess the effectiveness of data encryption for your organisation – the best case scenario would be not only to encrypt data to make it unreadable to unauthorised persons, but also to ensure that you are doing so in a cost-efficient manner. If you find that it is taking too much space or CPU time, you may consider shaking things up a bit , probably by using a different algorithm, or by just altering the settings in the data encryption tools. In essence, you want to find a way to maximise the effectiveness of the data encryption for your organisation as a whole.

You must protect personal data, both in transit and at rest – data encryption protects data while it’s being transmitted, or even when it’s being stored for later use. Many organisations that use data encryption, choose to do so when planning to transmit it – could be by using encrypted connections such as HTTPS, TLS, SSL, FTPS, etc. – but forget to encrypt the data that’s not being transmitted. The best practice, in this case, would be to either encrypt the super-sensitive data in storage or encrypt the storage drive itself. But just make sure that all the data is secure.

Implement S/MIME – the secure/multipurpose internet mail extension (S/MIME) would be one of the best ways to ensure that you are able to send end-to-end encrypted emails and also be able to fill all the holes for data sprawl. Since organisations do send a lot of sensitive data through email, this would be the best way to ensure that the emails are secure.

Final thought

The truth is, data encryption is a highly effective technique that would help organisations to achieve GDPR compliance – it wasn’t recommended in the GDPR regulation by mistake. So, even though it is not mandatory under the law, it is still something you may want to take a look at. Since data breaches have proved to be such a big threat to personal data across the globe, encoding the data into an unreadable format, so that only the authorised users could access it, would be the best idea. In fact, the GDPR law doesn’t have to apply to your organisation for you to incorporate encryption into or data security strategies. You should just do it to seal all the loopholes attackers could use to access your sensitive data. After all, in this day and age, where data privacy is of utmost importance, data encryption is no longer an option, it is a necessity that all data controllers and processors should implement.     

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