The GDPR basics your business needs to know

We’ve all experienced situations when a few bad apples made life harder for everyone. There are plenty of examples of this in today’s world, but one of the most far-reaching examples is the need for data protection regulations. Some web-based businesses were taking advantage of customers’ data and disregarding their privacy, leading to widespread laws like the GDPR that everyone needs to follow.

When people talk about the GDPR, meaning the EU’s data privacy law, what do they mean? What does GDPR stand for, what is GDPR compliance, and what do you have to do to be compliant? To bring you up to speed, we’re covering all the essentials in this GDPR overview.

When did GDPR go into effect?

GDPR stands for General Data Protection Regulation. This is a regulation that was signed into law across the EU in 2016.

The GDPR is a response to the massive growth of technology and the way it has turned consumer data into both a commodity and a potential weapon. It was passed by the EU in 2016 and took effect on May 25th, 2018, meaning that organizations had to be fully GDPR compliant by May 2018.

The GDPR isn’t the EU’s first regulation designed to protect private data. In 1995, it released the 1995 Data Protection Directive, which laid out rules for processing and transferring data in the EU. The GDPR is essentially a modernized regulation with the same goal, designed to better reflect the way data is handled today and the fact that it is functioning as a form of currency. The 1995 Data Protection Directive also allowed every country in the EU to make its own data privacy laws, which created a logistical mess for businesses and regulators, so the GDPR fixes this with one unified regulation.

When the GDPR took effect in 2018, it was among the strictest data privacy regulations in existence, and it remains so today. An update to the GDPR was published in 2021 as well, removing the Privacy Shield to make it easier for US businesses to serve EU customers and changing the laws for cookie consent.

A refresher on GDPR basics

The goal of the GDPR was to give users and customers more transparency about their data and how it is collected and used, give users more control over their data, and protect users’ data privacy from unwarranted access.

The GDPR includes a variety of steps any business must take if they are collecting data from anyone in the EU. Understandably, though, EU authorities gave businesses time to get the necessary procedures in place. So, the GDPR effective data was in May 2018. Although, if you’re wondering when did GDPR go into effect, you probably only need to think back to when you started seeing pop-ups about allowing cookies on every site you visited.

GDPR compliance meaning and guidelines

For your organization to be considered “GDPR compliant,” you must adhere to all of the guidelines and requirements laid out in the GDPR. That involves having certain consent options on your site, incorporating and enforcing certain policies for how data is handled, and so on.

Keep in mind that the GDPR is a law, not a standard. Unlike security standards, there is no certification that deems you to be “GDPR compliant.” You are responsible for ensuring that you are following the law, and there can be serious penalties and fines if you are found to be in breach of the GDPR. These fines can be tens of millions of dollars or more - the highest penalty to date is €746 million (about $787 million US). Double check your organization’s compliance with our GDPR checklist to avoid severe penalties.

GDPR guidelines

As a whole, the GDPR is designed to protect consumer data for EU residents. There are seven guiding principles it uses to carry out that goal.

Lawfulness, fairness, and transparency

Organizations must collect data with fairness and transparency, allowing consumers to understand what is being collected about them rather than gathering data behind their backs.

Purpose limitation

When organizations collect data, it doesn’t become free for them to use in any way they choose. In alignment with the GDPR, organizations can only use collected data for specific purposes that they have communicated to the consumers.

Data minimization

The GDPR requires organizations to only collect data that is necessary for their purposes, so they are receiving as little data as is possible or reasonable from consumers.


To protect users from being targeted based on inaccurate data, the GDPR requires organizations to make a reasonable effort to keep consumers’ data accurate and up to date.

Storage limitation

The GDPR requires organizations to only keep consumers data for as long as is necessary for them to process it appropriately.

Integrity and confidentiality

Organizations must take measures to keep consumer data secure and confidential to protect it from unauthorized access.


The GDPR holds organizations accountable for how they use and handle consumer data, including intentional misuse and careless disregard for consumer privacy.

What rights are granted under the GDPR requirement?

The core GDPR principles revolve around a set of rights that the legislation guarantees to people in the EU. These include:

  • The right to be informed about your data and how it’s being collected and used
  • The right of access to the data being collected
  • The right to rectification or the right to correct inaccurate data
  • The right to erase any and all data a company has stored about them at their request
  • The right to restriction of processing by requesting that you stop or change the way you’re processing their data
  • The right to data portability, meaning that they can request that any and all data be transferred from one company or service provider to another
  • The right to object
  • Rights regarding automated decision-making and profiling

This “bill of rights” forms the core basis for the GDPR and sets the tone for the rules and regulations that businesses need to follow.

What are the GDPR rules I need to follow?

The GDPR regulations include a complex list of rules and requirements for businesses to follow. These include security protocol, user communication policies, data management practices, and more to protect those eight rights guaranteed to users.

One type of requirement in the GDPR involves getting consent from users to collect and process their data. Before this regulation, it was assumed that users consented to their data being collected and used unless they stated otherwise. This is called implied consent, and most users had no idea what they were “consenting” to. The GDPR flips this so companies can only collect data if users give their written consent.

You’re also required to have processes in place for communicating your data usage transparently to users. You need to have clear and easy ways for users to put their GDPR data protection rights into action, like ways for them to request the erasure of their data or to request access to the data you’ve collected about them.

Another key component of the GDPR policy is data security. You must have systems in place that keep users’ data reasonably safe from unwarranted access like hacks and data breaches. As part of this, you need to have internal access controls to make sure user data can only be seen and used when absolutely necessary. You must also have protocols for alerting authorities quickly about any data breaches or risks to user data.

If your company isn’t located within the EU, another key requirement is to have a representative in the EU who can be the primary point of contact with EU authorities about GDPR matters.

This is not a comprehensive list of the GDPR requirements but a general summary of the types of policies, protocols, and protections you’ll need to have in place for EU GDPR compliance.

Who needs to comply with the GDPR?

Most data privacy regulations apply to companies based in a particular area. The GDPR is different. This law protects anyone in the EU, so in terms of requiring companies to comply with the requirements, who does the general data protection regulation apply to? It applies to any company that collects data from anyone within the EU.

Generally, that means any company with a website needs to follow the GDPR law. You may not be actively marketing to EU customers, but if an EU-based user could visit your site and have their data collected, the GDPR applies to you. The rare exception would be a company that cannot or does not do business with EU-based customers, such as a site that is geographically blocked from EU users.

How can I make the GDPR compliance process as smooth as possible?

If you’re doing business in a way that requires you to follow the GDPR, the compliance process doesn’t have to be as arduous as you might expect. There are specialized tools that can help.

Compliance software, for example, will automatically scan your system and compare it against the checklist of requirements for GDPR data privacy. The software gives you a clear list of what criteria you already meet and what you need to put in place for full compliance.

More about GDPR compliance

Get GDPR compliant

Who should comply with GDPR?

8 Facts about GDPR compliance you need to know


Determine whether the GDPR applies to you and if so, if you are a processor or controller (or both)

Do you sell goods or service in the EU or UK?

Do you sell goods or services to EU businesses, consumers, or both?

Do you have employees in the EU or UK?

Do persons from the EU or UK visit your website?

Do you monitor the behavior of persons within the EU?

If any of the above apply to your business, you’ll need to get GDPR compliant.

Create a Data Map by taking the following actions

Identify and document every system (i.e. database, application, or vendor) which stores or processes EU or UK based personally identifiable information (PII)

Document the retention periods for PII in each system

Determine whether you collect, store, or process “special categories” of data

racial or ethnic origins
genetic data
political opinions
biometric data that can uniquely identifying someone
religious or philosophical beliefs
health, sex life or sexual orientation data
trade union membership

Determine whether your Data Map meets the requirements for Records of Processing Activities (Art. 30)

the name and contact details of the controller
the purpose behind the processing of data
a description of the categories of data that will be processed
who will receive the data including data
documentation of suitable safeguards for data transfers to a third country or an international organization
the retention period of the different categories of data
a general description of the technical and organizational security measures

Determine whether your Data Map includes the following information about processing activities carried out by vendors on your behalf

the name and contact details of the processor or processors and of each controller on behalf of which the processor is acting, and, where applicable, of the controller’s or the processor’s representative, and the data protection officer
the categories of processing carried out on behalf of each controller
documentation of suitable safeguards for data transfers to a third country or an international organization
a general description of the technical and organizational security measures

Determine your grounds for processing data

For each category of data and system/application have you determined the lawful basis for processing based on one of the following conditions?

consent of the data subject
contract with the data subject
necessary for compliance with a legal obligation
necessary in order to protect the vital interests of the data subject or a third party
necessary for the performance of a task in the public interest or in the exercise of official authority vested in the controller
necessary for the purposes of the legitimate interests pursued by the controller or by a third party, except where such interests are overridden by the rights of data subject

Take inventory of current customer and vendor contracts to confirm new GDPR-required flow-down provisions are included

Review all customer contracts to determine that they have appropriate contract language (i.e. Data Protection Addendums with Standard Contractual Clauses)

Review all in-scope vendor contracts to determine that they have appropriate contract language (i.e. Data Protection Addendums with Standard Contractual Clauses)

Do your agreements cover the following items?
vendor shall process the personal data only on documented instructions (including when making an international transfer of personal data) unless it is required to do otherwise by EU or member state law
vendor ensures that persons authorized to process the personal data are subject to confidentiality undertakings or professional or statutory obligations of confidentiality.
vendor have adequate information security in place, technical and organizational measures to be met to support data subject requests or breaches
vendor shall not appoint or disclose any personal data to any sub-processor unless required or authorized
vendor shall delete or return all the personal data after the end of the provision of services relating to processing, and deletes existing copies unless Union or Member State law requires storage of the personal data;
vendor makes available all information necessary to demonstrate compliance and allow for and contribute to audits, including inspections

Have you performed a risk assessment on vendors who are processing your PII?


Determine if you need to do a Data Protection Impact Assessment

Is your data processing taking into account the nature, scope, context, and purposes of the processing, likely to result in a high risk to the rights and freedoms of natural persons?

Does your processing involve any of the following?
automated processing, including profiling, and on which decisions are based that produce legal effects
special categories of data or data related to criminal convictions and offenses
monitor publicly accessible area on a large scale.
If any of the above are true, you may need to conduct a Data Protection Impact Assessment for existing and new data projects.

Review product and service design (including your website or app) to ensure privacy notice links, marketing consents, and other requirements are integrated

Do you have a public-facing Privacy Policy which covers the use of all your products,  services and websites?

Does the notice to the data subject include the following items?

the identity and the contact details of the organization and its representative
the contact details of the data protection officer, if applicable
the purposes to process personal data and its legal basis for the processing
the recipients or categories of recipients of the personal data, if any
the details regarding any transfer of personal data to a third country and the safeguards taken applicable

Does the notice also include the following items?

the retention period, or if that is not possible, the criteria used to determine that period
the existence of the data subject rights (i.e. requests for information, modification or deletion of PII)
the right to withdraw consent at any time
the right to lodge a complaint with a supervisory authority
whether the provision of personal data is a statutory or contractual requirement, or a requirement necessary to enter into a contract, as well as whether the data subject is obliged to provide the personal data and of the possible consequences of failure to provide such data
the existence of automated decision-making, including profiling, and meaningful information about the logic involved, as well as the significance and the consequences

Do you have a mechanism for persons to change or withdraw consent?


Update internal privacy policies to comply with notification obligations

Update internal privacy notices for EU employees

Do you have an Employee Privacy Policy governing the collection and use of EU and UK employee data?

Determine if you need to appoint a Data Protection Officer, and appoint one if needed

Have you determined whether or not you must designate a Data Protection Officer (DPO) based on one of the following conditions (Art. 37)?

the data processing is carried out by a public authority
the core activities of the controller or processor require regular and systematic monitoring of data subjects on a large scale

If you export data from the EU, consider if you need a compliance mechanism to cover the data transfer, such as model clauses

If you transfer, store, or process data outside the EU or UK, have you identified your legal basis for the data transfer (note: most likely covered by the Standard Contractual Clauses)

Have you performed and documented a Transfer Impact Assessment (TIA)?


Confirm you are complying with other data subject rights (i.e. aside from notification)

Do you have a defined process for timely response to Data Subject Access Requests (DSAR) (i.e. requests for information, modification or deletion of PII)?

Are you able to provide the subject information in a concise, transparent, intelligible and easily accessible form, using clear and plain language?

Do you have a process for correcting or deleting data when requested?

Do you have an internal policy regarding a Compelled Disclosure from Law Enforcement?


Determine if you need to appoint an EU-based representative, and appoint one if needed

Have you appointed an EU Representative or determined that an EU Representative is not needed based on one of the following conditions?

data processing is occasional
data processing is not on a large scale
data processing doesn’t include special categories or data related to criminal convictions and offenses
doesn’t risk to the rights and freedoms of data subjects
a public authority or body

If operating in more than one EU state, identify a lead Data Protection Authority (DPA)

Do you operate in more than one EU state?

If so, have you designated the Supervisory Authority of the main establishment to act as your Lead Supervisory Authority?


Implement Employee Trainings to Demonstrate Compliance with GDPR Principles and Data Subject Rights

Have you provided appropriate Security Awareness and Privacy training to your staff?


Update internal procedures and policies to ensure you can comply with data breach response requirements

Have you created and implemented an Incident Response Plan which included procedures for reporting a breach to EU and UK Data Subjects as well as appropriate Data Authorities?

Do breach reporting policies comply with all prescribed timelines and include all recipients i.e. authorities, controllers, and data subjects?


Implement appropriate technical and organizational measures to ensure a level of security appropriate to the risk

This includes pseudonymization/ encryption, maintaining confidentiality, restoration of access following physical/technical incidents and regular testing of measures

Have you implemented encryption of PII at rest and in transit?

Have you implemented pseudonymization?

Have you implemented appropriate physical security controls?

Have you implemented information security policies and procedures?

Can you access EU or UK PII data in the clear?

Do your technical and organizational measure ensure that, by default, only personal data which are necessary for each specific purpose of the processing are processed?


Consider streamlining GDPR compliance with automation

Transform manual data collection and observation processes into continuous monitoring

Download this checklist for easy reference

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Develop a roadmap for successful implementation of an ISMS and ISO 27001 certification

Implement Plan, Do, Check, Act (PDCA) process to recognize challenges and identify gaps for remediation

Consider ISO 27001 certification costs relative to org size and number of employees

Clearly define scope of work to plan certification time to completion

Select an ISO 27001 auditor


Set the scope of your organization’s ISMS

Decide which business areas are covered by the ISMS and which are out of scope

Consider additional security controls for business processes that are required to pass ISMS-protected information across the trust boundary

Inform stakeholders regarding scope of the ISMS


Establish an ISMS governing body

Build a governance team with management oversight

Incorporate key members of top management, e.g. senior leadership and executive management with responsibility for strategy and resource allocation


Conduct an inventory of information assets

Consider all assets where information is stored, processed, and accessible

  • Record information assets: data and people
  • Record physical assets: laptops, servers, and physical building locations
  • Record intangible assets: intellectual property, brand, and reputation

Assign to each asset a classification and owner responsible for ensuring the asset is appropriately inventoried, classified, protected, and handled


Execute a risk assessment

Establish and document a risk-management framework to ensure consistency

Identify scenarios in which information, systems, or services could be compromised

Determine likelihood or frequency with which these scenarios could occur

Evaluate potential impact of each scenario on confidentiality, integrity, or availability of information, systems, and services

Rank risk scenarios based on overall risk to the organization’s objectives


Develop a risk register

Record and manage your organization’s risks

Summarize each identified risk

Indicate the impact and likelihood of each risk


Document a risk treatment plan

Design a response for each risk (Risk Treatment)

Assign an accountable owner to each identified risk

Assign risk mitigation activity owners

Establish target dates for completion of risk treatment activities


Complete the Statement of Applicability worksheet

Review 114 controls of Annex A of ISO 27001 standard

Select controls to address identified risks

Complete the Statement of Applicability listing all Annex A controls, justifying inclusion or exclusion of each control in the ISMS implementation


Continuously assess and manage risk

Build a framework for establishing, implementing, maintaining, and continually improving the ISMS

Include information or references to supporting documentation regarding:

  • Information Security Objectives
  • Leadership and Commitment
  • Roles, Responsibilities, and Authorities
  • Approach to Assessing and Treating Risk
  • Control of Documented Information
  • Communication
  • Internal Audit
  • Management Review
  • Corrective Action and Continual Improvement
  • Policy Violations

Assemble required documents and records

Review ISO 27001 Required Documents and Records list

Customize policy templates with organization-specific policies, process, and language


Establish employee training and awareness programs

Conduct regular trainings to ensure awareness of new policies and procedures

Define expectations for personnel regarding their role in ISMS maintenance

Train personnel on common threats facing your organization and how to respond

Establish disciplinary or sanctions policies or processes for personnel found out of compliance with information security requirements


Perform an internal audit

Allocate internal resources with necessary competencies who are independent of ISMS development and maintenance, or engage an independent third party 

Verify conformance with requirements from Annex A deemed applicable in your ISMS's Statement of Applicability

Share internal audit results, including nonconformities, with the ISMS governing body and senior management

Address identified issues before proceeding with the external audit


Undergo external audit of ISMS to obtain ISO 27001 certification

Engage an independent ISO 27001 auditor

Conduct Stage 1 Audit consisting of an extensive documentation review; obtain feedback regarding readiness to move to Stage 2 Audit

Conduct Stage 2 Audit consisting of tests performed on the ISMS to ensure proper design, implementation, and ongoing functionality; evaluate fairness, suitability, and effective implementation and operation of controls


Address any nonconformities

Ensure that all requirements of the ISO 27001 standard are being addressed

Ensure org is following processes that it has specified and documented

Ensure org is upholding contractual requirements with third parties

Address specific nonconformities identified by the ISO 27001 auditor

Receive auditor’s formal validation following resolution of nonconformities


Conduct regular management reviews

Plan reviews at least once per year; consider a quarterly review cycle 

Ensure the ISMS and its objectives continue to remain appropriate and effective

Ensure that senior management remains informed

Ensure adjustments to address risks or deficiencies can be promptly implemented


Calendar ISO 27001 audit schedule and surveillance audit schedules

Perform a full ISO 27001 audit once every three years

Prepare to perform surveillance audits in the second and third years of the Certification Cycle


Consider streamlining ISO 27001 certification with automation

Transform manual data collection and observation processes into automated and continuous system monitoring

Identify and close any gaps in ISMS implementation in a timely manner


Learn more about achieving ISO 27001 certification with Vanta

Book an ISO 27001 demo with Vanta

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Determine which annual audits and assessments are required for your company

Perform a readiness assessment and evaluate your security against HIPAA requirements

Review the U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights Audit Protocol


Conduct required HIPAA compliance audits and assessments

Perform and document ongoing technical and non-technical evaluations, internally or in partnership with a third-party security and compliance team like Vanta


Document your plans and put them into action

Document every step of building, implementing, and assessing your compliance program

Vanta’s automated compliance reporting can streamline planning and documentation


Appoint a security and compliance point person in your company

Designate an employee as your HIPAA Compliance Officer


Schedule annual HIPAA training for all employees

Distribute HIPAA policies and procedures and ensure staff read and attest to their review


Document employee trainings and other compliance activities

Thoroughly document employee training processes, activities, and attestations


Establish and communicate clear breach report processes
to all employees

Ensure that staff understand what constitutes a HIPAA breach, and how to report a breach

Implement systems to track security incidents, and to document and report all breaches


Institute an annual review process

Annually assess compliance activities against theHIPAA Rules and updates to HIPAA


Continuously assess and manage risk

Build a year-round risk management program and integrate continuous monitoring

Understand the ins and outs of HIPAA compliance— and the costs of noncompliance

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