Accountants have always prided themselves on providing a confidential service. The combination of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and modern technology is providing some interesting challenges. In the first of a three-part series, employment law expert Annabel Kaye reflects on some of the areas of concern.
The profession has to share information with statutory bodies, but also keep information safe and confidential. How can GDPR problems be avoided?
GDPR came into force in the UK on 25 May 2018. All practices (and organisations) are ‘data controllers’ when choosing which information to collect about prospective or active clients. This imposes a duty on the data controller to limit the information collected about living individuals to what is necessary for a given purpose.
For example, if you are building a mailing list of potential clients then you will not need their tax reference number to add them to your mailing list. Conversely, if you are negotiating a complex tax case with HMRC you may need to collect a range of data about the client’s personal and business affairsTeam members may need to access some of that data to carry out their work, but the billing department is not going to need access to all the information on file about a client.
You will need to limit not only the range of data collected but also who has access to it. Giving team members full access to client data is going to be a thing of the past. GDPR is all about giving access only to what is needed only to those who need it.
We are all familiar with team roles in software such as Xero, but we need to take care to use a role-based approach to everywhere we share data with our internal teams.
It is easy to get lost in the jargon of GDPR with its various lawful purposes for collecting data, but get back to basics and ask yourself:
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- Do we need this information at all?
- If we do need this, do we need it at this stage or later?
- Who needs to access it and why?
- Can they manage with access to some of the data?
With these questions you will find it a lot easier to make sense of what needs to be done. The person who does your marketing does not need access to your data which supports anti-money laundering checks – and neither does your day-to-day service team or billing team.
Think of client information like money in the business: it flows through from marketing, to identity checks, to getting and doing the work, to billing and credit control, to accounting and historic record. Not everyone you have contact with makes it through this entire cycle. And not everyone who works at various stages of the cycle needs all the information.
Information is a dynamic thing in your business and as a result GDPR compliance is a continuous process. Your data needs may be quite different to another practitioner’s needs if you are offering a different range of services or working in a different way.
If you change what you offer, or how your structure your team, you will need to revisit your processes to make sure you are still complying with those fundamental principles. If you go from a mostly employed team to an outsourcing model, this will trigger a big change. If you change the platforms you use to market or to provide your services, you will need to review your GDPR compliance in this context too.
It is important to have policies and to train anyone who touches the data you handle. This is not something you do once and forget about. New team members need to be brought up to speed with how you do things and why, and changes to processes will mean updating established team members.
Securing or sharing
Sharing data with external bodies may be a legal requirement. It is not always up to you which information you share with whom. Anti-money laundering procedures require disclosure without notifying the client and HMRC can require a wide range of personal information about clients, particularly when conducting investigations.
However, a legal obligation to share information about living individuals does not bypass the requirement to process data securely. The information clients share with you should be:
- Sent to you securely
- Held securely
- Shared securely
Clients can often be the biggest hazard to data security by emailing sensitive personal data in open emails. They can be resistant to using more secure ways of data sharing, and some may lack the skills or equipment to do so.
The reality is that firms have to support clients into secure data sharing, since few are already on top of this and ready to go.
HMRC also seem to struggle with some aspects of GDPR, and their old technology may take a while to get fully up to speed.
Data privacy policies should make this all clear
Clients do not always fully understand an accountant’s role. This is particularly true now, when different practices have widely different service options. It is easy to assume, wrongly, that they know what you are doing and why.
You will quickly lose ‘trusted adviser’ status if you lose your clients in the small print of your policies and do something they were not expecting you to do with their personal data.
Technology can help with security, but it won’t get there on its own
Whilst online platforms have made great strides to secure data about living individuals, they are not all equal in their security standards. And however great your platform may be, if your people don’t use it securely you cannot be sure the information is safely held.
Sharing passwords with colleagues, using one password across multiple platforms, and giving people higher levels of access than they need are all still common issues across many firms. While the software and the hardware can be, and is being improved, the human ‘wetware’ is struggling to keep up. Poor data handling by people is still the biggest risk to data security.
Regulatory change is not over
While many practices saw 25 May 2018 as GDPR-Day, the reality is that the Information Commission is still formulating and developing guidance and advice. We also have the forthcoming change to the E-Privacy Regulations to look forward to. Meanwhile the EU is in dispute with the USA about the EU-US Privacy Shield Framework that underpins our ability to use many US-based servers without having to contract specifically for non-EEA processing of personal data. And right now we cannot be sure of the effect that Brexit will have on all of this. Although the Data Protection Act 2018 confirms the direct effect of GDPR in UK law, if we are longer in the EEA after Brexit we will need an EU ruling of the adequacy of our data protection regime if we are to avoid painful paperwork and procedural checks for any cross-border transfers of data.
Data Privacy is not an EU-based fad. Countries throughout the world are implementing their own privacy regimes. While GDPR is currently the gold standard – it is not true that everywhere else everyone can do what they want. Secure and appropriate data collecting and sharing is going to be at the heart of any accounting practice as we move into an increasingly online world.
While it is hard to look into the future and predict what platforms and security measures accountants will be using in the future, it is clear that there is an obligation to incorporate privacy at the design stage of any new platform or process. Security can no longer be viewed as an afterthought or a bolt-on after everything else is done.
In parts two and three of this series we will explore this in more detail with:
·The GDPR-ready practice: Cloud-based platforms and geography
·The GDPR-ready practice: Outsourcing and referring
About Annabel Kaye
Annabel co-founded Irenicon in 1980 and during the last 30+ years, managed to juggle being a mother to her two children with advising clients on everything to do with the tough side of HR. From flexible working and parental leave to discrimination and TUPE - she loves the tricky ones and when people tell her it can't be done, she is passionate about showing them otherwise.
After discovering a fascination of freelancing, virtual teams and the changing way in which people work, Annabel founded KoffeeKlatch in 1989 specifically to address the new way we work today.
There is a big gap between the law, people's expectations and what can actually work. Despite the fact that she reads a lot of legal jargon, Annabel likes to bring and flexible and practical approach to solving problems.
An adviser, coach, mentor, consultant, trainer, litigator and professional speaker; both in-person and virtual events, Annabel loves helping you get the best out of the people you pay.