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Navigating Special Category Data under GDPR: An Overview for Organisations in the UK

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the United Kingdom is a comprehensive legal framework designed to safeguard individuals' privacy and provide a robust foundation for the responsible processing of personal data. Within the GDPR, there is a distinct category known as "special category data," which pertains to sensitive information that requires heightened protection. This article aims to provide an overview of special category data in the UK under GDPR, outlining its definition, legal considerations, and the obligations placed upon organisations that handle such sensitive information.


1. Defining Special Category Data:

Special category data, as defined in Article 9 of the GDPR, encompasses specific types of personal information that are considered particularly sensitive. This includes data revealing racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership, genetic data, biometric data for the purpose of uniquely identifying an individual, health data, and data concerning a person's sex life or sexual orientation.


2. Legal Basis for Processing Special Category Data:

Processing special category data is generally prohibited unless there is a valid legal basis for doing so. The GDPR outlines specific circumstances in which the processing of such sensitive information is permitted. These legal bases include explicit consent from the data subject, the necessity of processing for the performance of a legal obligation, the protection of vital interests, the processing carried out by a foundation, association, or non-profit organization, and more. Organisations must carefully assess and document the legal basis for processing special category data to ensure compliance.


3. Explicit Consent:

When relying on explicit consent as the legal basis for processing special category data, organisations must ensure that the consent is freely given, specific, informed, and unambiguous. Data subjects should be provided with clear information about the nature of the data being processed, the purpose of the processing, and their rights regarding the data.


4. Data Subject Rights:

Individuals have enhanced rights concerning their special category data. These rights include the right to access, rectification, erasure, restriction of processing, data portability, and the right to object to processing. Organisations handling special category data must have mechanisms in place to facilitate the exercise of these rights by data subjects.


5. Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs):

The GDPR mandates that organisations conduct Data Protection Impact Assessments (DPIAs) when processing activities involving special category data are likely to result in high risks to the rights and freedoms of individuals. DPIAs help organisations identify and mitigate potential risks, ensuring that appropriate safeguards are in place.


6. Security Measures:

Given the sensitivity of special category data, organisations must implement robust security measures to protect against unauthorised access, disclosure, alteration, and destruction. Encryption, access controls, and regular security audits are essential components of a comprehensive data protection strategy.


7. Record-Keeping and Documentation:

Maintaining detailed records and documentation of the processing of special category data is a fundamental aspect of GDPR compliance. Organisations must be able to demonstrate adherence to legal requirements, including the lawful basis for processing and the fulfillment of data subject rights.


Navigating special category data under GDPR in the UK requires a diligent and proactive approach from organisations. By understanding the legal framework, establishing robust mechanisms for compliance, and prioritising the protection of sensitive information, businesses can not only fulfill their legal obligations but also contribute to a culture of responsible and ethical data processing. In a digital landscape where privacy is paramount, organisations handling special category data play a crucial role in upholding the principles of GDPR and safeguarding the rights and dignity of individuals.


For more information on how The Data Project can assist you in managing special category data, contact us.

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