What is Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA)? A Legal Analysis

Picture of Quiyue Zhao, Ph.D.

Quiyue Zhao, Ph.D.

What is a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA)?

A Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) is a systematic process to identify, assess, and mitigate privacy risks in data processing activities, ensuring compliance with data protection laws and safeguarding individuals’ rights and freedoms.

Understanding Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA)

As organisations increasingly rely on personal data to drive their operations, the potential risks to individuals’ privacy and security have escalated.

One key tool in the arsenal of data protection measures is the Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA).

A DPIA is a process designed to help organisations identify, assess, and mitigate the privacy risks associated with data processing activities.

It is a systematic review that evaluates how personal data is collected, stored, used, and managed, with a focus on identifying potential privacy risks and finding ways to reduce or eliminate them.

The DPIA is an essential part of an organisation’s privacy governance framework, ensuring that privacy considerations are integrated into the design of projects, systems, products, and processes.

Why Conduct a DPIA?

The primary objective of conducting a DPIA is to protect individual privacy and comply with data protection laws, such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) (see Article 35(1) and recitals 89 and 91).

The GDPR explicitly requires a DPIA for data processing operations that are likely to result in a high risk to individuals’ rights and freedoms.

Beyond legal compliance, there are several other reasons why conducting a DPIA is beneficial:

  • Risk Management: Identifies and mitigates risks before they materialise, reducing the potential for data breaches and the associated costs.
  • Regulatory Compliance: Ensures that data processing activities comply with relevant data protection laws, avoiding hefty fines and legal issues.
  • Enhanced Privacy Practices: Encourages a privacy-by-design approach, ensuring that privacy considerations are embedded from the outset.

Who Is Responsible For Conducting A DPIA?

The responsibility for conducting a DPIA primarily lies with the data controller, the entity that determines the purposes and means of processing personal data.

Data controllers are tasked with ensuring that the DPIA is carried out properly, identifying and mitigating any data protection risks associated with their processing activities.

In organisations with a designated Data Protection Officer (DPO), the DPO provides advice, guidance, and oversight for the DPIA process, ensuring compliance with data protection laws and regulations.

When is a DPIA Required?

Under the GDPR, a DPIA is mandatory for data processing operations that pose a high risk to the rights and freedoms of individuals.

This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Large-scale processing of sensitive personal data.
  • Systematic monitoring of publicly accessible areas on a large scale.
  • Profiling operations that can significantly affect individuals.
  • Processing data on vulnerable subjects, including children.

Even when not strictly required by law, conducting a DPIA is considered a best practice for any project or system that processes personal data.

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Can A DPIA Be Conducted After A Project Has Started?

A DPIA can be conducted after a project has started, although it is most effective when done in the early stages of project planning. Conducting a DPIA at a later stage can still provide significant benefits by identifying and mitigating privacy risks that were not previously considered.

This process ensures ongoing compliance with data protection regulations and reinforces the protection of individuals’ rights and freedoms.

However, early implementation is recommended to avoid potential redesigns or adjustments that could be more costly and complex to implement after significant project progress has been made.

How to Conduct a DPIA

It involves several key steps:

  • Describe the Processing: Clearly outline the data processing operations, including the purposes, scope, and context of the processing.
  • Assess Necessity and Proportionality: Evaluate whether the processing is necessary for and proportionate to the purposes for which it is being carried out.
  • Identify and Assess Risks: Identify the potential risks to individuals’ rights and freedoms and assess their likelihood and severity.
  • Mitigate Risks: Determine measures to mitigate identified risks and protect personal data.
  • Document the DPIA: Keep a record of the DPIA findings and actions taken. This documentation is crucial for demonstrating compliance with data protection laws.
  • Review and Update: Regularly review and update the DPIA, especially if there are significant changes to the processing activities or the risks associated with them.

What Are The Criteria For Determining If A DPIA Is Necessary?

The criteria for determining the necessity of a Data Protection Impact Assessment are guided primarily by the nature, scope, context, and purposes of the data processing activity.

Key considerations include:

Sensitivity and Volume of Data: Large-scale processing of sensitive personal data or criminal convictions and offences.

Systematic Monitoring: Operations that entail systematic monitoring of individuals, especially in publicly accessible areas.

Decision-making Impact: Processing activities that significantly affect individuals, including profiling or decision-making based on automated processing.

Vulnerable Data Subjects: Special consideration for vulnerable individuals, such as children or the mentally ill, where their rights might be at greater risk.

Innovative Use or Applying New Technological Solutions: Introducing new technologies or novel applications of existing technologies that could affect personal privacy.

Data Transfer Across Borders: Particularly outside the EU or to international organizations, considering the adequacy of data protection in the recipient location.

Preventing Data Subjects from Exercising Their Rights: Processing that might hinder the rights of individuals to access, rectify, or erase their data.

These criteria, aligned with guidelines from data protection authorities like the European Data Protection Board, help organisations assess the potential risks to the rights and freedoms of individuals.

How Does A DPIA Differ From A Risk Assessment?

A Data Protection Impact Assessment specifically focuses on identifying, assessing, and mitigating risks related to personal data processing and its impact on individuals’ privacy rights under data protection regulations.

In contrast, a risk assessment is a broader process that evaluates various types of risks (financial, operational, IT, etc.) an organization might face, including but not limited to privacy risks.

The DPIA is a specialised form of risk assessment with a narrow focus on privacy and data protection considerations.

Challenges and Best Practices

Conducting a DPIA can be complex and challenging, particularly for large or technologically sophisticated projects.

Here are some best practices to ensure the effectiveness of the process:

  • Start Early: Begin the DPIA in the early stages of project design to integrate privacy considerations from the outset.
  • Involve Stakeholders: Engage with relevant stakeholders, including data subjects, data protection officers, and technical experts, to gain diverse perspectives on privacy risks.
  • Be Thorough and Transparent: Ensure the DPIA is comprehensive and transparent, covering all aspects of data processing and risk mitigation.
  • Continuously Improve: Use the DPIA process as an opportunity for continuous improvement in data protection practices.

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The Data Protection Impact Assessment is a crucial tool in the pursuit of privacy and data protection.

By systematically identifying, assessing, and mitigating the privacy risks associated with data processing activities, organisations can ensure they comply with legal requirements, protect individuals’ privacy, and build trust with their customers and stakeholders.

As data protection regulations continue to evolve, the importance of conducting DPIAs will only grow, making it an essential practice for any organisation that processes personal data.

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Picture of Quiyue Zhao, Ph.D.

Quiyue Zhao, Ph.D.

Quiyue possesses an undergraduate degree in Law with International Relations, an LLM in International Law and Doctorate in Human Rights and Legal Technology. Her PhD thesis was based on the impact of crypto-assets regulation on financial inclusion for women in emerging markets. Quiyue is a senior research fellow in London and has an interest in Constitutional Law, Economic Crime, European Union Law and Family and Child Law.

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