Privacy v Confidentiality

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the difference between privacy and confidentiality. This issue surfaces in libraries around handling patron data (relevant to my current line of research) but also more generally in how researchers handle human subjects data. I think it’s important to recognize the difference between privacy and confidentiality and how this might play out in dealing with research data.

Privacy is a concept centered on the person from which the information originates. It entails that individual’s personal information and their discretion in disclosing it to others. I’m not going to attempt to define the “privacy” (there are plenty of privacy scholars who have already done this) but instead want to highlight that here I’m applying the term to an individual’s choices about their own information.

Confidentiality instead centers on the entity that holds someone else’s personal information and their duty to not expose that information further. Some professions, such as doctors and lawyers, routinely deal with confidentiality but it’s an important concept to apply to personal information more broadly.

So, being a blog on data management, how does this apply to research data? First, it’s important to think about privacy in how we collect data. When do we need specific sensitive information versus when can we go without it? What is the impact on the person disclosing sensitive information? What is considered private information and how is that clearly defined and communicated?

When we do need to collect personal information for research, the second part is to think about confidentiality in ensuring that information is not further disclosed. How will the data be secured? Who is allowed access to the data, such as for a research team, and how is this communicated to the research participant? What will happen to the data at the end of the project?

As you can see, privacy and confidentiality play out during different phases of the research process yet are both important when doing research involving personal information. We, as researchers, keep data confidential to help maintain other people’s privacy. So while they are different concepts and actions, confidentiality does have its roots in privacy.

There are many nuances in the types of data that may be considered private, but it’s worth recognizing that, as researchers, we have a role in both navigating disclosure of personal information as well as then securing that information to maintain confidentiality. I hear a lot of discussions about privacy, but I think it’s just as important to discuss the role of confidentiality when we do have to collect sensitive information.