How safe are we, really?

PRIM&R is pleased to bring you a live post from the second day of the 2011 Advancing Ethical Research Conference and the PRIM&R Blog Squad. The PRIM&R Blog Squad is composed of PRIM&R members who are devoted to blogging prior to, live from, and after our conferences.

We can run, but can we hide? We create avatars, multiple online personas, use different types of devices to log on, but are we really safe? I attended a panel this morning, Would Margaret Mead Have Blogged? How Social Media Has Changed Research, in which one of the presenters stated that both kids and adults no longer see a separation between their personal lives and their online lives. Both groups fail to consider future audiences of the content they put online.

Online safety is a moving target. Facebook, for instance, is constantly making changes to their privacy policies, and as of a year ago, the Library of Congress is now archiving all tweets. Heck, as far as I know, I’ve signed my first born over to Mr. Zuckerberg! Have fun with that, sir. I’m happy to relieve the college payments up to you!

So, how do institutional review boards (IRBs) handle the constant changes in the cyber world? One answer I heard today was that IRBs go by the “expectations” of the individuals that are posting on the sites that the researchers use. In an effort to understand this concept, I sent my 20-year-old son a Facebook message to ask him what his expectations were for researchers who engage with his online gaming communities. He shared that he was under the impression that these communities were private. This was an understanding that he also extended to Facebook. Many of these online tools make changes to their privacy settings so often that I think a person could have a full-time job just teaching others how to secure their information on these sites. Techies seem to be able to keep up with these changes, but the average Joe doesn’t seem to have a clue that things have changed until someone points out that they saw something salictious on their wall.

I have done my own informal “research” on Facebook, and have found that many people don’t have their account as secure as they think they do. Does this mean that because their information is public that they want their data mined? Is it ethical to do so? Personally, I don’t think it’s ethical to mine data from people’s Facebook accounts just because it isn’t secured. If researchers want to do studies on Facebook accounts, consent should be obtained. The argument that it’s public knowledge is a pretty thin one when it comes to social media. Many people will sign their first born away with out realizing it because they don’t read the privacy policy, and they don’t take the time, or don’t understand how, to figure out how to keep their posts and other information private.

There are numerous issues to look at when it comes to research and social media. The sheer number of people attending these sessions is a clear indication that the issues are becoming more and more front and center. With technology constantly changing, it’s difficult to keep on top of it all. Now there are clouds to consider, hackers to worry about, and data to keep safe. I’m not sure if most people understand that their digital footprint never goes away, and that it just continues to build. Ultimately, the more we use social media and mobile devices, the less we can hide.