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Data Protection Officers vs. Representatives: A Comparative Analysis under GDPR, UK GDPR, and the New Swiss Data Protection Act

Data Protection Officers vs. Representatives: A Comparative Analysis under GDPR, UK GDPR, and the New Swiss Data Protection Act

The roles of Data Protection Officers (DPOs) and representatives stand as critical figures, ensuring businesses navigate the complex seas of compliance. Yet, there often exists a cloud of ambiguity around their distinct functions, responsibilities, and the nuances that set them apart. This article aims to demystify the roles of DPOs and representatives, dissecting the triggers for their appointment, their unique responsibilities, and exploring whether these pivotal roles can converge in one individual.

  • Data Protection Officers: Role and Responsibilities

Under the GDPR and UK GDPR, a DPO is a mandated role for certain organisations. The DPO is responsible for overseeing the organisation’s data protection strategy and its compliance with legal requirements. Key responsibilities include monitoring compliance, informing on data protection obligations, and providing advice on data protection impact assessments (DPIAs). The DPO also serves as a point of contact between the organisation and supervisory authorities.

In Switzerland, under the new Data Protection Act, the role is termed as a Data Protection Advisor. While not mandatory for all organisations, the Advisor has similar responsibilities to a DPO, focusing on ensuring compliance with the Swiss Data Protection Act.

  • Representatives: Role and Responsibilities

A representative, as defined under the GDPR and UK GDPR, is a person or entity appointed by non-EU/UK-based organisation to represent them in the EU/UK regarding their obligations under these regulations. This role is crucial for companies outside the EU/UK that process personal data of EU/UK residents. The representative acts as a local contact point for data subjects and supervisory authorities and is responsible for maintaining records of processing activities.

Under the Swiss Data Protection Act, the concept of a representative is now explicitly defined, similar to the GDPR. Non-Swiss entities processing data of individuals in Switzerland are required to appoint a representative in Switzerland, mirroring the GDPR’s approach for non-EU entities.

  • Comparing DPOs and Representatives

While both DPOs and representatives play important roles in data protection compliance, their functions are distinct. DPOs are primarily internal roles focused on advising and monitoring compliance within the organisation. In contrast, representatives act as external entities that liaise between the organisation and external stakeholders, including data subjects and regulatory authorities.

The key distinction between DPOs and representatives lies in the criteria triggering their appointment. For DPOs, their appointment is mandated based on specific criteria: public authorities or bodies processing data, businesses whose core activities require regular and systematic monitoring of data subjects on a large scale, or entities processing special categories of data on a large scale. This means that the need for a DPO is determined by the nature, scope, and scale of the data processing activities of the organisation.

In contrast, the appointment of a representative is triggered by the geographical scope of the data processing activities. Under the GDPR, UK GDPR, and the Swiss Data Protection Act, non-EU/UK-based and non-Swiss entities that process personal data of individuals within the EU/UK or Switzerland are required to appoint a representative within these jurisdictions. This requirement ensures that entities not established in the EU/UK or Switzerland but processing data of individuals based in these regions have a local point of contact for regulatory and data subject communication.

  • Can DPOs and Representatives Be the Same Person?

Technically, there is no explicit legal prohibition against a DPO and a representative being the same person. However, this arrangement is generally not advisable due to potential conflicts of interest and the distinct nature of the responsibilities each role entails. The DPO’s primary function is to provide independent advice and monitor internal compliance with data protection laws within the organisation. They are expected to without any conflict of interest, maintaining an impartial stance in their assessment of the business’ data processing practices.

On the other hand, the representative acts as an external liaison between the organisation and the supervisory authorities or data subjects in the EU, UK, or Switzerland. Their role is more focused on facilitating communication and ensuring that the business fulfils its obligations under the respective data protection laws.


Are you looking to understand data protection laws and ensure your business is compliant? Book a free 20-minute call with our experts. We will provide you with tailored advice and insights to help you understand these roles better and implement effective data protection strategies.

blank Anna Levitina

Senior Associate

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