Ethics & Privacy Implications of Using the Internet & Social Media to Recruit Participants for Health Research:

A Privacy-by-Design Framework for Online Recruitment

By Bender JL, Cyr AB, Arbuckle L, Ferris LE

 

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ABSTRACT

Background: The Internet and social media offer promising ways to improve the reach, efficiency, and effectiveness of recruitment efforts at a reasonable cost, but raise unique ethical dilemmas. We describe how we used social media to recruit cancer patients and family caregivers for a research study, the ethical issues we encountered, and the strategies we developed to address them.

Objective: Drawing on the principles of Privacy by Design (PbD), a globally recognized standard for privacy protection, we aimed to develop a PbD framework for online health research recruitment.

Methods: We proposed a focus group study on the dietary behaviors of cancer patients and their families, and the role of Web-based dietary self-management tools. Using an established blog on our hospital website, we proposed publishing a recruitment post and sharing the link on our Twitter and Facebook pages. The Research Ethics Board (REB) raised concern about the privacy risks associated with our recruitment strategy; by clicking on a recruitment post, an individual could inadvertently disclose personal health information to third-party companies engaged in tracking online behavior. The REB asked us to revise our social media recruitment strategy with the following questions in mind: (1) How will you inform users about the potential for privacy breaches and their implications? and (2) How will you protect users from privacy breaches or inadvertently sharing potentially identifying information about themselves?

Results: Ethical guidelines recommend a proportionate approach to ethics assessment, which advocates for risk mitigation strategies that are proportional to the magnitude and probability of risks. We revised our social media recruitment strategy to inform users about privacy risks and to protect their privacy, while at the same time meeting our recruitment objectives. We provide a critical reflection of the perceived privacy risks associated with our social media recruitment strategy and the appropriateness of the risk mitigation strategies that we employed by assessing their alignment with PbD and by discussing the following: (1) What are the potential risks and who is at risk? (2) Is cancer considered “sensitive” personal information? (3) What is the probability of online disclosure of a cancer diagnosis in everyday life? and (4) What are the public’s expectations for privacy online and their views about online tracking, profiling, and targeting? We conclude with a PbD framework for online health research recruitment.

Conclusions: Researchers, REBs, ethicists, students, and potential study participants are often unaware of the privacy risks of social media research recruitment and there is no official guidance. Our PbD framework for online health research recruitment is a resource for these wide audiences.

This article originally appeared in JMIR on April 6, 2017

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