What Is a Data Protection Officer?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Discover what a data protection officer is, the key duties and responsibilities related to this role, the required skills for data protection officers, the average salary and expected job demand, and what a standard career path looks like.

[Featured image] A data protection officer holds a tablet and talks to employees about the importance of data compliance.

As corporations across the globe increase the amount of technology they utilize to conduct business, the importance of effectively protecting the data they handle has grown. Companies face the threat of data breaches and cyber attacks on their systems and now leverage advanced technologies and skilled data privacy professionals to manage these risks. Corporations face additional risks in handling personal data, such as names, home addresses, date of birth, and credit card numbers, to comply with various laws and retain the trust of their customers. 

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) enacted by the European Union (EU) led to the creation of the data protection officer (DPO) position. This law requires corporations to hire a DPO if they ingest and manage large quantities of private, personal data during their normal business functions. While the United States does not have official laws regarding appointing a formal data protection officer, many companies that handle significant amounts of private data have recognized the value of having one, especially if they conduct business internationally. 

Before pursuing a data protection officer role in the US, it is helpful to understand what a data protection officer is, their standard job duties and responsibilities, education and experience requirements, and the applicable technical and workplace skills to develop. Learning about the average annual salary for data protection officers and their projected job demand growth also allows you to determine if this role is right for your career. 

What is a data protection officer?

Someone in this position will manage a corporation's overall data protection strategy and monitor compliance to protect customers’ private data and information stored and managed within a business. These professionals hold an independent position within the company and keep the customer’s best interest at the forefront of everything they do. As a security leader, DPOs ensure firm-wide compliance with relevant laws and regulations and often educate key stakeholders or employees about data processing best practices and compliance regulations.

In 2018, the EU put the GDPR into law to strengthen its position on data protection and set forth specific requirements for data privacy and rules that detailed how companies can gather and store the private data of EU citizens. Failure to remain compliant with these regulations results in significant penalties for corporations. One requirement for businesses is hiring a DPO to manage compliance and serve as an expert in data protection strategies and applicable laws [1].

The criteria for deciding if a corporation requires a data protection officer comes down to four specific factors: 

  1. Number of data subjects

  2. Number of data items

  3. Length of data retention

  4. Geographic processing range 

The EU uses these factors to determine which companies must have a data protection officer. Even though the US does not have rules to require data protection officers, it is still valuable for corporations that handle large quantities of data to consider these four criteria. 

Companies in the US have to abide by various laws and regulations regarding data privacy depending on the industries they operate in and the type of personal data they collect. A few of the prevalent laws regarding privacy data include:

  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1966 (HIPAA)

  • Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule (COPPA)

  • Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA)

  • Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)

  • California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA)

Due to the necessity to abide by these regulations and others, businesses in the US still understand the value of employing a data protection officer who has the necessary skills to protect personal data effectively. Additionally, the GDPR requires any corporation that manages or uses the private data of EU citizens to have a DPO. 

What types of companies do data protection officers work for?

Data protection officers can work for any company that works internationally in EU countries and handles personal data. It is a government regulation for these corporations to hire a DPO. Beyond international companies, health care or health insurance businesses may look to have a DPO because of the type of information they collect. Any business that ingests and stores large quantities of customer data may be a target to find a data protection officer job, whether they are a large corporation or nonprofit. In the EU contrarily, it is a requirement that any business that frequently handles sensitive and private information about their customers appoints a DPO, regardless of their industry.

Other data-related roles within corporations, such as the role of a Chief Information Security Officer (CISO), may appear similar to the duties of a data protection officer. However, critical distinctions exist between the roles, showing how unique data protection officer positions are. 

CISOs or other data officers strive to protect the data and critical information of a company and utilize it to gain important insights to optimize and enhance various functions within a business. As mentioned, a data protection officer aims to keep the customer’s best interest in mind and protect their privacy. However, it is important to note that smaller companies may have one individual handle the duties of a CISO and DPO. 

Data protection officer tasks and responsibilities 

The duties performed in the role of a data protection officer commonly include the following:

  • Determine the inherent risk of handling customer data

  • Monitor how personal data related to customers cycles through a corporation

  • Perform security audits on a standard schedule

  • Maintain compliance with all relevant laws by building a privacy framework

  • Identify each type of personal information ingested by a business

  • Become the primary contact to engage with various authorities governing data

  • Provide employee training and educate members of the organization

  • Measure company performance related to protecting data and aiding when required

  • Communicate with customers to explain their data privacy rights

  • Create an in-depth log of records detailing protection initiatives by a corporation

Data protection officer skills

Understanding the various technical and workplace skills required to perform effectively is valuable before pursuing a job. The requirements of each position may differ slightly; however, having proven experience with technical concepts, such as cybersecurity, is helpful. 

Technical skills

Data protection officers use a wide variety of technical skills to complete their job duties, including:

  • Experience with cybersecurity software

  • Ability to build and develop information technology (IT) systems

  • Familiarity with relevant data collection and data storage processes

  • Ability to efficiently use encrypting programs

  • Risk assessment

  • Experience with security reporting

Workplace skills

Relevant workplace skills for data protection officers include:

  • Leadership

  • Effective communication

  • Management qualities

  • Customer service

  • Problem-solving

  • Critical thinking

  • Legal knowledge 

  • Ability to ensure compliance

  • Expertise in data protection regulations and laws

Data protection officer salary and job outlook

According to Glassdoor, the average annual base salary for data protection officers in the US is $79,193  [2]. This is substantially above the average salary for all occupations in the US, which is $55,640 [3]. 

The salary you will receive as a data protection officer varies depending on your location and your specific employer. A few of the top 10 US cities offering the highest pay for data protection officers include:

  • Sunnyvale, CA

  • Santa Rosa, CA

  • Cambridge, MA

  • New York City, NY 

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that roles related to data protection officers, such as information security analysts, will grow by 32 percent from 2022 to 2032. On average, this growth rate corresponds to around 16,800 job openings per year [4].

Data protection officer career path

You can become a data protection officer from many different career paths and disciplines depending upon the skills you possess and the experience you have attained. Many successful DPOs come from a legal background and are exposed to relevant data protection laws and regulations. 

You can still land a data protection officer role without having privacy or security-related experience. People with backgrounds in finance, administration, and business can still apply. Having the necessary skills and knowledge for an information security role greatly affects your ability to enter this profession.  Required knowledge may include the organization's structure, relevant technologies, information technology infrastructure, business operations, and industry-specific knowledge related to the company. 

Building relevant experience is also crucial in becoming a data protection officer since it is a senior-level role that handles and manages sensitive information. Gaining experience in areas such as:

  • Compliance

  • Law

  • Operational risk management

  • Information security,

  • Other various disciplines in information technology 

Education and training

To attain a data protection officer job, you typically need a bachelor’s degree in law, computer science, information security, cybersecurity, or another similar discipline. Proven experience or formal education in compliance roles, jobs focused on privacy, or auditing may qualify you for these positions. Having a law degree with valuable experience in the topics mentioned is also a possible option for you. 

Getting an advanced degree, like a master’s, is not a formal qualification for data protection officer jobs. However, some corporations may hire more educated candidates with additional experience.  


Certifications tailored for data protection officers allow you to gain crucial training and build skills relevant to this profession. Pursuing certifications shows employers that you have the proper experience, particularly in cybersecurity, to handle a data protection officer role. Some of the top credentials for DPOs include:

  • Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP)

  • IBM Cybersecurity Analyst Professional Certificate

  • Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP)

  • Certified Information Privacy Manager (CIPM)

  • Certified Information Privacy Technologist (CIPT)

  • Certified Data Privacy Solutions Engineer (CDPSE)

  • Security Engineer Nanodegree

Getting started on Coursera

To learn more about data protection officers or other data-related subjects, consider completing a course or Professional Certificate program on Coursera. For example, Data Privacy Fundamentals from Northeastern University covers fundamental concepts related to privacy concepts and theories in the digital age, modern technology privacy implications, and key frameworks for data privacy. 

Another relevant course worth checking out is Privacy Law and Data Protection by the University of Pennsylvania. This mixed-level certification offers you the opportunity to gain exposure to the laws surrounding data protection, the top methods for protecting data, the Fair Information Principles, and various strategies for handling privacy compliance problems. 

Article sources


University of San Diego. “How to Become a Data Protection Officer [Career & Salary Guide], https://onlinedegrees.sandiego.edu/data-protection-officer-career-guide/.” Accessed March 22, 2023.

Keep reading

Updated on
Written by:

Editorial Team

Coursera’s editorial team is comprised of highly experienced professional editors, writers, and fact...

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.