Privacy on the Ground

Operationalizing Privacy: How Empowered Is Your Privacy Office?

Note from the Editor:

This is the first in a series of three posts on privacy officers in the U.S. and Europe from Berkeley Profs. Kenneth Bamberger and Deirdre Mulligan. They discussed some of their findings in the breakout session Privacy on the Ground in the U.S. and Europe, March 7, at the IAPP Global Privacy Summit in Washington, DC.

Where should privacy professionals be positioned within the organization? 

What level of independence and authority do privacy officers need so that they can embed a value as complicated as privacy—at times in tension with a whole host of bottom-line commitments, from identifying terrorists to placing effective ads —into a complex organization? 

And if privacy is to be delivered through designs and defaults, as well as policy, where should privacy professionals be positioned within the firm?

While lots of folks speculate about these things from the outside, we are engaged in research involving almost one hundred interviews of leading privacy officers, regulators and other privacy professionals in the U.S. and four European countries—Germany, France, Spain and the UK—to find answers to these questions grounded in the actual experience of privacy professionals.

The draft EU Data Protection Regulation offers a view on some of these questions from a regulator’s perspective. It envisions a new and enhanced role for data protection officers (DPOs). While the breadth of the ultimate requirement is unclear, the initial proposal requires all public authorities, all companies with more than 250 permanent employees, and companies whose core business is or relies on intense data processing, to appoint a DPO.

DPOs are provided with independence, authority and job protection through provisions that prohibit direction from above, provide for direct reporting to management and protection against firing. The DPO is charged with advising the organization on its data protection obligations and monitoring compliance on the one hand, and facilitating interaction between the supervisory authority and the organization on the other. Finally, the draft regulation requires the DPO to address privacy through design and defaults, reflecting the growing interest of regulators, privacy advocates and privacy professionals in “Privacy by Design.”

These directions bode well for privacy protection. 

Key Findings

Specifically, in our research on the role and position of privacy leads in Europe and the U.S., we have found that:

  • Privacy and data protection are most likely to be supported by personnel distributed and embedded throughout different business units, as well as targeted policies, procedures and decisional tools—the types of things that research suggests is most effective in promoting privacy in firm decisionmaking—in companies with powerful CPOs or DPOs who participate in, and affect, firm strategy, and
  • The privacy professionals who exercise such influence are those who report to senior management or the board, regularly interact with the board and enjoy a high degree of latitude in both defining what privacy and data protection requires of their firm and determining how to execute that vision;
  • While these successful CPOs had core staff, much of the work of instilling privacy into the firm’s ethos and activities was distributed out to a looser network of employees embedded within business and functional units, coupled with targeted privacy and data protection requirements for which specific business units were responsible. 

Surprisingly, the two countries where we found these empowered and strategic professionals at the helm couldn’t be more different in terms of regulatory substance and form: Germany and the U.S. 

And we’ll discuss what can be learned by this transatlantic confluence in our next two posts. 

About the Author

Deirdre K. Mulligan is an Assistant Professor at the School of Information at UC Berkeley, and a Faculty Director at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology. Prior to joining the School of Information Mulligan was a Clinical Professor of Law and the founding Director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law. She is the policy lead for the NSF-funded TRUST Science and Technology Center, which brings together researchers at U.C. Berkeley, Carnegie-Mellon University, Cornell University, Stanford University, and Vanderbilt University. Prior to joining academia she served as staff counsel at the Center for Democracy & Technology in Washington, D.C. Mulligan’s current research agenda focuses on information privacy and security. Current projects include comparative, qualitative research to explore the conceptualization and management of privacy within corporations based in different jurisdictions and policy approaches to improving cybersecurity. Other areas of current research include exploring users' conceptions of privacy in the online environment and their relation to existing theories of privacy. She is chair of the board of directors of the Center for Democracy and Technology, and co-chair of Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing Academic Advisory Board.

See all posts by Deirdre Mulligan

Kenneth A. Bamberger is Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-director of the Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. He is an expert on government regulation and corporate compliance, especially with regard to issues of technology and information privacy. His groundbreaking study of privacy practices in the U.S. and Europe, conducted with UC Berkeley Information Prof. Deirdre Mulligan, will be published by MIT Press in 2014.

See all posts by Kenneth Bamberger


  • March 08, 2013
    Peggy Mulligan

    Great work Dee and Ken! Congratulations!

  • April 19, 2013
    Mike Anderson

    One thing that people rather underestimate is the potentially devastating effect of the higher limit (over 250 Employees), before a company data protection officer becomes mandatory,  that the proposed EU regulation may impose on privacy compliance. Currently, in Germany the low limit is 9 (!) people. Statistics show that if the limit is raised to 250, then the vast majority of companies currently having a privacy officer, will no longer be required to do so. It is hard to see this as an enhancement.

    On the positive side, one should look at Privacy Compliance, along with Information Security as a benefit in its own right. The more attention one pays to these key areas, the more incentive we have to build robust, safe, secure and minimally invasive IT infrastructures. This can, and is increasingly, be seen as a positive differentiation argument/factor in a competitive business world.

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