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Why should software developers care about GDPR compliance?

Software developers often view ensuring GDPR compliance as blocker . As they are left trying to figure out what personal data is and how to maintain compliance. In a recent study by Alhazmi and Arachchilage, software developers cite multiple reasons that make approaching GDPR compliance tricky. Some reasons listed include a lack of clear best implementation practices, a lack of familiarity with the legislation and a lack of guidance. Understanding what to look for and what to prioritize likely constitutes the 1st hurdle. There are many reasons why software developers should acknowledge privacy and ensure regulatory compliance such as GDPR compliance. Software developers play a key role in ensuring GDPR compliance.

GDPR compliance as a market differentiator 

Companies serious about GDPR compliance understand its role in maintaining their market position. Those who are proactive are quicker at placing themselves on a purchaser’s list of adequate suppliers. When processing data from people in Europe, the GDPR applies. It forces an organization to implement measures and maintain records of compliance. Even if an organization is not currently processing that data, building in regulatory compliance early supports future collaborations and partnerships with larger organizations and ensures the trust of product users.

Regardless of whether a software developer operates in a B2C, B2B or B2B2C context is irrelevant. The processing of personal data anywhere on that chain of services needs to comply with GDPR requirements. Thus achieving and maintaining compliance allows an organisation to be a supplier that implementing clients consider. For instance, a software developer for a small start up is able to integrate fundamental privacy by design and default principles in their design. This includes practices such as implementing end-to-end security, hashing, and other cryptographic measures.

Transparency makes the product more competitive if it is to be implemented through partnerships or sold as a SaaS. Procurement negotiations might still bring up specific questions and feature requests to be added to the agreements your organization signs as a vendor. By prioritizing compliance, any solution developed is more likely to remain on the list of suppliers worth considering especially if the negotiation deals with business in the EU. Implementing privacy preserving design features allows an organization the competitive edge of transparency.

Major fines

Tech giants, Facebook, Google and Amazon, regularly face severe fines for non compliance. These fines are essentially caused by deliberate ambiguity in their data processing and the fulfillment of their transparency requirements. Worse, they disregard their data controller obligations and get fined for a combination of hidden processing practices and implemented dark patterns. In May 2023, Meta, was hit with a 1.3 billion euro fine for lack of GDPR compliance. This is the largest fine to date. Amazon was fined for 746 million in 2021 for lack of user consent collection when advertising. When companies get fined, several factors come into play. This could potentially include their willingness to cooperate and implement corrective actions. However, a constant factor includes lack of transparency, misleading patterns and a lack of legitimization of processing.

However, most businesses are small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). This term is technically defined by the European Commission as a company with less than 250 employees. For an SME, GDPR compliance is harder to achieve due to proportionally reduced resources or access to expertise. Therefore, if an SME is able to achieve compliance, they recover the competitive advantage over larger players lost on operational costs. Tech giants are consistently pressured to maintain compliance due to their increased visibility. Therefore, compliance, when managed efficiently, is a defining competitive advantage for smaller companies.

GDPR compliance as a political or social issue 

When tech-savvy individuals go online, they tend to protect their own privacy by using strong passwords. Some examples of this includes increasingly using MFA where available or using pseudonyms and single use email addresses where possible. With the help of a few high profile breaches and updates to app marketplace practices and communication strategies, the average user has become more aware of the online privacy risks. Software developers tend to implement best security practices in their own use of software and apps. As a result, they are particularly best suited to understand the need for security. They are also specifically instructed to implement strong security practices and privacy design patterns such as content security policies for websites. As creators of technology, software developers have an ethical responsibility to protect the privacy of individuals and empower them to use their software or services more privately. 

Through implementing best design practices such as the minimization of cookies, the forced use of MFA, the encryption of user data, a privacy by default approach to design, designers create privacy-preserving environments. While the expectation might be that less tech-savvy individuals are likely to show relative indifference about their own privacy, one study entitled Caring is not enough: the importance of Internet skills for online privacy protection, argues that even if people do care they also need to be educated on how to protect their own privacy. It is not uncommon to feel helpless protecting one’s own data or safely using the internet. Typically, a lot of the burden for security falls, wrongfully, on the individual.

Should the average user be expected to know how to make use of encryption to feel safe online? 

For many, cookie banners are annoying interfaces, easily brushed away by clicking the “Accept all” button. Configuring a cookie banner to not set non-essential cookies by default, makes the organization compliant on that requirement. It also provides users with a choice. Amongst other principles, privacy by default also requires the developer to ensure the most private settings are set by default. Software designers, familiar with ePrivacy requirements, are able to notify the marketing team that silent opt-ins is illegal in the EU. This allows the organization to engage in discussions as to whether to design for compliance or to accept the risk. In accepting the risk, an organisation increasing user distrust for the benefit of tracking, profiling and advertising KPIs.

As digitization continues, there is a pervasive use of selling user data or mishandling personal information in the tech field. This trend occurs without much regard to the significance of this action. This has become regretfully normalized even though it is against the GDPR. This is likely due partially to many companies solely operating within the US. At the moment, the US does not have a federal governing law similar to the GDPR. Regardless, this precedent is pervasive.

People should have the right to use and access the internet and software related tools/services without being seen as a commodity. Through the use of tracking elements and abuse of consumer metrics, individuals are becoming commodified and sold as such. This should not be the case where individuals can be so easily manipulated and tracked through their actions online. When software developers prioritize GDPR compliance, they are able to help prevent the commodification of individuals by their company. 

GDPR compliance in software development as an intellectual challenge

It is easy to do things in a non secure manner. It would be easier to access one’s phone to text people if one didn’t have a password, but most individuals likely have a password on their phone to protect from strangers accessing the content on their device. Therefore, the easiest solution is not always the best solution. This stems from the common dilemma of convenience versus privacy that one is confronted with daily. Instead of seeing this as an issue, one should frame it a challenge. If one views compliance as an intellectual challenge of how to protect others, the issue becomes more intriguing and fun to solve. An issue bears the connotation of an obligation or nuisance. 

Individuals are motivated to do things either intrinsically or extrinsically. When a supervisor informs a developer that they must make the system compliant with the GDPR, that would be the definition of an extrinsic motivator as it is external; however, intrinsic motivation is a powerful and compelling motivator. Due to intrinsic motivation, this is part of the reason as to why computer games are fun to learn.

An intellectual challenge has a better and more enthralling connotation. This idea has been theorized since the 1950s and academics have postulated through research that intrinsic motivation is correlated with how challenging the activity is. Considering those who have a background in computer science are confronted with technical issues and problems to solve all the time, compliance is best viewed as an intellectual challenge to avoid the easiest solution but create the most secure solution. 

Concluding thoughts 

Compliance is the law. As a software developer, one will likely need to work to implement or maintain compliance with the GDPR. It is easy to see it as a tedious endeavor handed down to a higher up, who might not necessarily understand the ramifications of the technical assignment they are bestowing. Instead, one should view the GDPR through an intrinsically motivated lens as an intellectual challenge to protect the rights of individuals. There are other reasons as to why as a software developer one should care about the GDPR. This includes but is not limited to securing contracts and helping others with less knowledge of proper internet privacy practices.

The joy of the internet and technology should be able to benefit and be enjoyed by all individuals. Any individual regardless of their technical background and without the fear of loss of rights. The question should not be: “does one engage with technology and in doing so give up their right to privacy?” but rather the burden should fall less on the technically ignorant users and be built into technology inherently. 

If you are interested in taking your GDPR knowledge to the next level, dive into TechGDPR’s specialized training for developers. This course is designed to equip you with the skills and understanding needed to navigate GDPR compliance within your projects. It will help you ensure your software is up to standard and gain a competitive edge. Discover more and enroll today at GDPR for Developers – Online Course.

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