Bioethics Blogs

Identifying individuals while protecting privacy

Research ethics is complex and requires considering issues from several perspectives simultaneously. I’ve written about the temptation to reduce research ethics to pure protection ethics. Then not as much needs to be kept in mind. Protection is the sole aim, and thinking begins to resemble the plot of an adventure film where the hero finally sets the hostages free.

Protection is of course central to research ethics and there are cases where one is tempted to say that research participants are taken hostage by unscrupulous scientists. Like when a group of African-American men with syphilis were recruited to a research study, but weren’t treated because the researchers wanted to study the natural course of the disease.

Everyday life is not one big hostage drama, however, which immediately makes the issues more complex. The researcher is typically not the villain, the participant is not the victim, and the ethicist is not the hero who saves the victim from the villain. What is research ethics in everyday situations?

There is currently a growing concern that coding of personal data and biospecimens doesn’t sufficiently protect research participants from privacy invasions. Hackers hired to test the security of research databases have in some cases been able to identify the individuals who provided their personal data to research (in the belief that the link to them had been made inaccessible to outsiders through advanced coding procedures). Such re-identified information can obviously harm participants, if it falls into the wrong hands.

What is the task of research ethics here? Suddenly we can begin to discern the outlines of a drama in which the participant risks becoming the victim, the researcher risks becoming the villain’s accomplice, and the ethicist rushes onto the scene and rescues the victim by making personal data in research databases completely anonymous, impossible to identify even for researchers.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.