Confidentiality and Privacy

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Given the heightened vulnerability of individuals who have just experienced a disaster, maintaining the confidentiality and privacy of participants represents another important ethical challenge.​1–4​

Disaster-affected areas are inherently unstable, and researchers may find it difficult to ensure that participant records and data are kept safe and secure while in the field. Some researchers have discussed issues with data being stolen, coerced, or otherwise breached in areas with pronounced conflict and violence.​5​ 

The specific structure of one’s study can also pose risks to participant confidentiality.​3​ For instance, although focus groups are a common method employed by hazards and disaster researchers, there is no way to ensure 100% anonymity and confidentiality of all participants.​6​

Confidentiality can also be compromised if a member of the research team is familiar with the study participants or their background on some level, such as in the case of a local researcher.​3​ In certain instances, the benefits of conducting a study with someone who is local to the community may outweigh the potential risk for loss of confidentiality, especially if necessary precautions are taken to minimize the risk of confidentiality breaches, such as de-identifying all recorded information and storing the data in encrypted files or on password-protected computers.​5​

Person holding an ipad with the words privacy written on it
  1. 1.
    Barron Ausbrooks CY, Barrett EJ, Martinez-Cosio M. Ethical issues in disaster research: Lessons from Hurricane Katrina. Population Research and Policy Review. 2009;28(1). doi:10.1007/s11113-008-9112-7

  2. 2.
    Ferreira RJ, Buttell F, Ferreira SB. Ethical considerations for conducting disaster research with vulnerable populations. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics. 2015;12(1):1-29. https://jswve.org/download/2015-1/articles/29-JSWVE-12-1-Ethical%20Considerations%20for%20Disaster%20Research.pdf

  3. 3.
    Jacobsen K, Landau LB. The dual imperative in refugee research: Some methodological and ethical considerations in social science research on forced migration. Disasters. 2003;27(3). doi:10.1111/1467-7717.00228

  4. 4.
    Packenham JP, Rosselli RT, Ramsey SK, et al. Conducting science in disasters: Recommendations from the NIEHS Working Group for Special IRB Considerations in the Review of Disaster Related Research. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2017;125(9). doi:10.1289/EHP2378

  5. 5.
    Tansey CM, Anderson J, Boulanger RF, et al. Familiar ethical issues amplified: How members of research ethics committees describe ethical distinctions between disaster and non-disaster research. BMC Medical Ethics. 2017;18(1). doi:10.1186/s12910-017-0203-z

  6. 6.
    Peek L, Fothergill A. Using focus groups: Lessons from studying daycare centers, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. Qualitative Research. 2009;9(1). doi:10.1177/1468794108098029