Ethical Standards, Item 5: Confidentiality

IVSA Code of Research Ethics and Guidelines | Published: December 2009

5. Confidentiality

Visual researchers have an obligation to ensure that confidential information is protected. They do so to ensure the integrity of research and the open communication with research participants and to protect sensitive information obtained in research, teaching, practice, and service. When gathering confidential information, researchers should take into account the long-term uses of the information, including its potential placement in public archives or the examination of the information by other researchers or practitioners. Specific challenges to matters of confidentiality when using visual media for recording, presentation, and publication are under continuous scrutiny by IVSA, and shall be elaborated in the guidelines.

Maintaining Confidentiality

(a) It is expected that visual researchers take reasonable precautions to protect the confidentiality rights of research participants, students, employees, clients, or others.

(b) Confidential information provided by research participants, students, employees, clients, or others is treated as such even if there is no legal protection or privilege to do so. There is an obligation to protect confidential information and not allow information gained in confidence from being used in ways that would unfairly compromise research participants or confidants.

(c) Visual researchers maintain the integrity of confidential deliberations, activities, or roles, including, where applicable, that of professional committees, review panels, or advisory groups.

(d) Private information about individuals collected is understood to be private information when an individual can reasonably expect that the information will not be made public with personal identifiers.

Limits of Confidentiality

(a) Visual researchers inform themselves fully about all laws and rules which may limit or alter guarantees of confidentiality. They determine their ability to guarantee absolute confidentiality and, as appropriate, inform research participants, students, employees, clients, or others of any limitations to this guarantee at the outset. The negotiation of conditions with research subjects is understood to be an on-going process in many types of qualitative and field research. A procedure of trustbuilding may extend over a long period of time, subject to changing social conditions.

(b) Researchers may confront unanticipated circumstances where they must balance the importance of guarantees of confidentiality with other principles in this Code, standards of conduct, and applicable law.

(c) Confidentiality is not required with respect to observations in public places, activities conducted in public, or other settings where no rules of privacy are provided by law or custom. Similarly, confidentiality is not required in the case of information available from public records.

Anticipation of Possible Uses of Information

(a) When research requires maintaining personal identifiers in databases or systems of records, efforts to conceal these identifiers (e.g. electronically masking faces, removing names) should be conducted before the information is made publicly available and specifically if this form of confidentiality is a basis of consent from research participants.

(b) When deletion or masking of personal identifiers is not feasible, reasonable steps should be taken to determine that appropriate consent of personallyidentifiable individuals is obtained.

(c) IVSA recognizes that formal consent mechanisms are not feasible in all forms of visual research. These terms are to be negotiated with ethical considerations throughout the research. Visual researchers may provide reasonable bases for using identifying information (e.g. public images of individuals or agreed usage of images by research participants who elect to have information released).

Electronic Transmission of Confidential Information

Extra care is to be given in delivering or transferring any confidential information or communication over public computer networks. Visual researchers are attentive to the problems of maintaining confidentiality and control over sensitive material and data when use of technological innovations, such as public computer networks, may open their professional communication to unauthorized persons. Both sensitive social means (e.g. identifying access participants) and technical means (e.g. pass access mechanisms) should be employed.

Anonymity of Sources

(a) Visual researchers do not disclose in their writings, lectures, or other public media confidential, personally identifiable information concerning their research participants which is obtained during the course of their research, unless consent from individuals or their legal representatives has been obtained.

(b) General and specific consent from research participants may be required to meet ethical and review board standards, when confidential information is used in professional presentations, in publications, and made public. Where formal written consent is not feasible, then the researcher should describe the ethical considerations undertaken to protect subjects.

(c) Various research methods do not require anonymity. Among these are: community/participatory research, and individual case studies involving individuals who consent to using identifying information (e.g. own names and visual representations).

Minimizing Intrusions on Privacy

(a) To minimize intrusions on privacy, a basic guideline is to include in written and oral reports, consultations, and public communications only information germane to the purpose for which the communication is made and with persons for whom the information is appropriate.

(b) Special sensitivity to potential privacy invasion is expected if there is visual recording (in any form) of person’s seclusion or solitude, disclosure of embarrassing private facts, publicity that puts the person in a false light in the public eye, and appropriation of the person’s advantage, name or likeness.

(c) While specific laws are followed regarding privacy matters, visual researchers like other members of the public have the means and right to record images that may, at the time, not seem invasive. Subsequent use of these images must be circumspect, given legal standards of public domain and fair use standards.

Preservation of Confidential Information

To transfer confidential records, data, or visual information to other persons or organizations, researchers obtain assurances that the recipients of the records, data, or information will employ measures to protect confidentiality at least equal to those originally pledged.