Carelessness and Illegal Intrusions

Survey researchers have identified various ways in which the confidentiality of individual respondents might be breached. Perhaps the most obvious and common threat to confidentiality protection of research data arises from simple carelessness—not removing identifiers from questionnaires or electronic data files, leaving cabinets unlocked, not encrypting files containing identifiers, talking about specific respondents with others not authorized to have this information. Although there is no evidence of respondents having been harmed as a result of such negligence, it is important for government data collection agencies and private survey organizations to be alert to these issues, provide employee guidelines for appropriate data management, and ensure that the guidelines are observed.

Confidentiality may also be breached as a result of illegal intrusions into the data. For example, in 1996, ten Social Security employees (bribed by outsiders) were found to have stolen confidential information from agency computers. The key piece of information was mothers’ maiden names, which were stored in a database with password protection but less stringent security than that protecting earnings statements and other private information. The information was used to activate credit cards of residents in the New York area. Identity theft has been increasingly in the news since then.

As detailed data collected under a pledge of confidentiality are increasingly made available to researchers through licensing agreements or in research data centers, the potential for inadvertent disclosure as a result of carelessness and through deliberate illegal intrusions may also increase unless strong educational and oversight efforts accompany such means of access. In Chapter 5 we offer several recommendations designed to strengthen protections against these sources of disclosure of information about individuals.

However, the extent of the problem is not easily determinable, either by assessing past experience or predicting future effects. Numerous media stories have documented harms of identity theft from such sources as credit card and banking data. In contrast, there is no documented evidence of harms from misuse of research data or carelessness by researchers or others. Overall, very little is known about how many breaches of confidentiality may actually occur in such settings or how many people are harmed as a result. Under most circumstances, attempted breaches are difficult to detect, and relying on self-reports is problematic. A July 1993 survey by Harris, for example, reported that between 3 percent and 15 percent of the public, depending on the person or organization asked

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