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GDPR deadline: Keep calm and GDPR on

You may know that the GDPR deadline — May 25, 2018 — is almost upon us.

In less than a month, the European Union will begin enforcing its new General Data Privacy Regulation, or GDPR. Some companies will face disabling fines, as much as 20 million euros, or 4% of global gross revenue, whichever is higher. Some companies will have spent millions to be compliant with the new rules on protecting the privacy of EU data subjects — anyone resident in the EU — while some companies will have spent nothing when the GDPR deadline arrives.

For example, according to a survey by technology non-profit CompTIA, U.S. companies are not doing well with GDPR preparations. They found that 52% of the 400 U.S. companies they surveyed are still either exploring how GDPR is applicable to their business, trying to determine whether GDPR is a requirement for their business, or are simply unsure. The research also revealed that  that just 13% of firms say they are fully compliant with GDPR, 23% are “mostly compliant” and 12% claim they are “somewhat compliant.”

That is not an isolated finding. A poll released this month by Baker Tilly Virchow Krause, LLP, revealed that 90% of organizations do not have controls in place to be compliant with GDPR before the deadline.

GDPR deadline versus Y2K

In four weeks, once the GDPR deadline has passed, will the privacy Armageddon will be upon us?

Probably not.

For IT and infosec pros of a certain age, the GDPR deadline echoes the panic of an earlier and more innocent time: January 1, 2000.

I certainly remember that time.

Also known as the year 2000 bug, the Y2K challenge, like GDPR, represented a problem that would require massive amounts of human, computing and financial resources to solve — and with a hard deadline that could not be argued with. The practice of coding years with just the last two digits in dates was clearly going to cause problems, and created its own industry for remediation of those problems in legacy systems of all types across the globe.

Much of the news coverage leading up to the millennium’s end focused on its impact on the world in the form of computers that could react unpredictably to the calendar change, especially all the embedded computers that controlled (and still control) so much of the modern landscape.

There were worries about whether air traffic control systems could cope with Y2K, worries that embedded computer-heavy airplanes would fall out of the sky, electric grids would fail, gas pumps would stop pumping and much worse was in store unless all systems were remediated.

The late software engineer Edward Yourdon, author of “Time Bomb 2000” and one of the leading voices of Y2k preparation, told me he had moved to a remote rural location where he was prepared to function without computers until the fallout cleared.

The GDPR deadline, on the other hand, represents an artificial milestone. After this date, if a company’s practices are not in line with the regulation and something happens as a result of those practices, the company may be fined — but the wheels won’t fall off unexpectedly, nor will any systems fail catastrophically and without notice.

Some of the big U.S. companies that will be affected by the GDPR, like Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and many others, have already taken action. And many companies that believe they won’t be affected, or that aren’t sure, are taking the “wait and see” approach, rather than attempting to be proactive and address, at great cost, privacy concerns before worrying about the potentially huge fines.

Both approaches will make sense, depending on the company.

It may be heresy, but there are probably many U.S. companies that don’t need to worry too much about the upcoming GDPR deadline:

  • Failing companies need not worry about GDPR. If they are having trouble keeping the lights on, a huge GDPR penalty might spell the end of the company — but that doesn’t mean the company would be prospering in a world without privacy regulations.
  • Business to business companies that do not have EU data subjects as their customers likely have little to fear from GDPR enforcement.
  • Companies that do not solicit, collect or process personally identifiable information about their EU customers should also have little to fear from GDPR enforcement.

Most notably, there are — I hope — companies that don’t need to make special preparation for the GDPR deadline because while they may not be explicitly compliant with the GDPR, they already take the principles of privacy and security seriously.

Enforcement of the GDPR begins in a month, but that doesn’t mean the headlines on May 26 will herald the levying of massive fines against GDPR violators. In time the fines will surely rain down on violators, but companies with the right attitude toward privacy can stay calm, for now.

While the magnitude of the importance of the Y2K challenge faded almost immediately after January 1, 2000, the importance of enforcing data privacy protections through the GDPR will only continue to grow after the deadline.

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