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Information Compliance


This page provides an overview of the following data protection topics and links to sources of further information.



Data protection legislation sets out rules and standards for the use and handling ('processing') of information ('personal data') about living identifiable individuals ('data subjects') by organisations ('data controllers').  It is based around the notions of principles, rights and accountability obligations.

The law applies to organisations in all sectors, both public and private.  It applies to all electronic records as well as many paper records. It doesn’t apply to anonymous information or to information about the deceased.

Since 1 January 2021, the principal legislation has been the UK version of the General Data Protection Regulation (the UK GDPR), coupled with the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA 2018) that supplements the UK GDPR in specific ways.  The UK GDPR is almost identical to the EU-wide GDPR that applied from 25 May 2018 to 31 December 2020, with minor technical changes to allow its provisions to work within a UK-only context.

The EU GDPR itself replaced the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA 1998) and the numerous Statutory Instruments issued pursuant to it.  There is also supplementary data protection legislation covering specific topics, such as direct marketing.  The legislation is regulated in the UK by the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) as well as the courts.  The DPA 2018 delineates the regulatory powers of the ICO as well as introducing various criminal offences.

The Government is currently consulting on proposed changes to data protection law in the UK.  These remain proposals and would take some time to implement.  All information published on these webpages reflects the current law.

The University (like most UK data controllers) is required to pay an annual fee to the ICO and to be included in its register of fee payers (the University's register entry number is Z6641083).  It should be stressed that the University of Cambridge - although a large, complex and devolved organisation that includes a major trading department (Cambridge University Press and Assessment) and various cultural activities(libraries, museums, theatres, gardens and festivals) as well as 'standard' academic departments and administrative offices - is a single legal entity and so is a single data controller.  Each of the 31 Colleges of the University, however, is a separate legal entity and data controller for the purposes of data protection legislation.



Data controllers processing personal data must follow - and be able to demonstrate that they are following - the data protection principles.

There are six principles.  Personal data must be processed following these principles so that the data are:

  1. Processed fairly, lawfully and transparently - and only if there is a valid 'legal basis' for doing so.

  2. Processed only for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes.

  3. Adequate, relevant and limited.

  4. Accurate (and rectified if inaccurate).

  5. Not kept for longer than necessary.

  6. Processed securely - to preserve the confidentiality, integrity and availability of the personal data.

Depending on the context, there are full or partial exemptions from the principles when processing personal data for specific purposes, including different types of academic research.


Privacy notices

An important aspect of complying with data protection legislation is being open and transparent with individuals about how their personal data will be used.  The supply of this information - through documents variously known as 'privacy notices', 'data protection statements', 'data collection notices', 'privacy policies' and numerous other interchangeable terms - takes places in numerous targeted ways depending on the context of the interaction with the individual.  The University's core privacy notices - each titled 'How we use your personal information (for ...)' - are available from the menu on this page.



Data subjects are given various rights, which are free to exercise:

  • The right to be informed of how their personal data are being used - this right is usually fulfilled by the provision of 'privacy notices' as described above.

  • The right of access to their personal data - accessing personal data in this way is usually known as making a 'subject access request'.

  • The right to have their inaccurate personal data rectified.

  • The right to have their personal data erased where appropriate - also known as the right to be forgotten or the right to deletion.

  • The right to restrict the processing of their personal data pending its verification or correction.

  • The right to receive copies of their personal data in a machine-readable and commonly-used format - known as the right to data portability.

  • The right to object: to processing (including profiling) of their personal data that proceeds under particular legal bases; to direct marketing; and to processing of their data for research purposes where that research is not in the public interest.

  • The right not to be subject to a significant decision based solely on automated decision-making using their personal data.

A response to a rights request normally needs to be sent within one month.  However, nearly all of these rights are qualified in various ways and there are numerous specific exemptions (for example, nearly all the rights may not apply if the personal data are being processed solely in an academic research context).


Accountability obligations

Data protection legislation imposes certain accountability obligations on all data controllers. The main obligations for large data controllers include:


Data breaches

One of the University's most important accountability obligations under data protection legislation concerns personal data breaches - that is, personal data held by the University is lost, stolen, inadvertently disclosed to an external party, or accidentally published.  Some typical examples of a personal data breach are:

  • Sending an email or letter containing personal data to the wrong recipient.

  • Accidentally disclosing personal email addresses (e.g. by using cc instead of bcc or a mailing list management system).

  • Inadvertently publishing University records containing personal data, or login credentials allowing access to them, on the internet.

  • Losing an unsecured laptop or other personal device storing University records containing personal data.

  • Having a University website, email account or drive hacked, with personal data stolen or 'locked down' by the hacker.

Personal data breaches may arise from IT security incidents, but not all IT security incidents are personal data breaches, and vice versa.  Some types of personal data breach have to reported to the ICO and the affected data subjects within short timeframes, so recognising and reporting them internally is crucial.

In the current circumstances, with many staff working remotely (in whole or in part), and much University activity taking place online, there are escalated information security and data handling risks that have the potential to lead to IT security incidents and/or personal data breaches.  Staff should familiarise themselves with the University guidance on this topic.

If an actual or potential personal data breach occurs, this should be reported urgently as follows:

  • If your University Institution has established a local personal data breach reporting mechanism (e.g. to the Departmental Administrator or Computer Officer), you should contact the relevant individual in the first instance.  They will then handle the onward reporting as necessary.

  • If not (or if you are unsure, or if you cannot get hold of the relevant individual), you should contact the Information Compliance Office.

Separately, or in addition, if an IT security incident occurs, this should be reported urgently using the procedures outlined on the Computer Security Incident Response Team (CSIRT) webpage.

Please do not delay and please do not worry about reporting to the wrong place - the specialist staff who receive reports will liaise and coordinate as necessary to ensure that the personal data breach and/or the IT security incident are handled under the correct procedures.



The University's Data Protection Policy was approved by the University Council at its meeting on 19 March 2018.  Section 3.6 outlines the responsibilities of individual members of University staff.

The Policy explains how it relates to associated information governance and information security policies and procedures.  Links to further policies are included on the main guidance page of this website.


Guidance and training

More detailed guidance for University staff on data protection is published:

  • In the short Data Protection Quick Guide leaflet.

  • On the guidance pages of this website, where there are also links to sources of additional guidance provided by other parts of the University.

  • In the Annual Compliance Checklist, which sets out a number of practical 'housekeeping' actions to be completed on an annual basis by individual University departments to help ensure their ongoing compliance with data protection law.

  • On the standalone GDPR preparations page of this website, which is retained for reference though relevant content has been integrated into the rest of this website.

Data protection training for University staff is available:

  • Through an online course.  Departmental Administrators (and equivalents) can monitor completions within their Institution via University Training Booking System (UTBS) logs.  All staff using personal data in some way in their role are encouraged to complete this online course as part of their induction and thereafter once every two years, but the precise expectations about who should complete it (and how often) in different areas of the University should be set by Heads of Department (and equivalents).  While this online course primarily is aimed at staff, it is also suitable for students needing or wishing to complete basic data protection training.

  • Through a face-to-face course that is run regularly throughout the year.  This can be used to supplement the online course for those staff for whom data protection knowledge is a more important part of their role.

  • On request to the Information Compliance Office, through bespoke training sessions, presentations or briefings for different groups of staff, both academic and non-academic, across all parts of the University.

  • Through specific training courses or activities managed and run locally by individual departments or offices (for example, there is specific training on data protection for users of Amicus, the University's central alumni relations and fundraising system).  Departmental Administrators (or equivalents) should be able to advise on any such courses or activities.


Data protection and Brexit

As explained in the Legislation section of this webpage, from 1 January 2021 (i.e. the end of the Brexit transition period), all the substantive provisions of the EU-wide GDPR (as supplemented by the DPA 2018) about principles, rights and accountability obligations continue to apply in the UK through the UK GDPR.

On 28 June 2021, the UK was granted a data protection 'adequacy decision' from the European Commission, meaning that personal data transfers from EEA-based organisations to UK-based organisations can continue without any additional safeguards.  (This formal decision followed 'bridging' provisions in the December 2020 EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement that had the same effect for the first six months of 2021.)  In practice, this means that the University should not be asked to enter into contractual variations with EEA-based organisations to facilitate the continuation of incoming personal data flows.  A University factsheet that had been prepared for departments and PIs in case an adequacy decision was not forthcoming has therefore been withdrawn.

Wider information on this topic has been published by: