Alexandra Wood, Edo Airoldi, Micah Altman, Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, Urs Gasser, David O'Brien, and Salil Vadhan submitted comments in response to the September 2015 notice of proposed rulemaking to revise the Federal Policy for the Protection of Human Subjects. With the ability to collect and analyze massive quantities of data related to human characteristics, behaviors, and interactions, researchers are increasingly able to explore phenomena in finer detail and with greater confidence. A major challenge for realizing the full potential of these recent advances will be protecting the privacy of human subjects. Drawing from their research findings and a forthcoming article articulating a modern approach to privacy analysis, the authors offer recommendations for updating the Common Rule to reflect recent developments in the scientific understanding of privacy. The suggested revisions ultimately aim to enable wider collection, use, and sharing of research data while providing stronger privacy protection for human subjects.
Specific recommendations include:
Incorporating clear and consistent definitions for privacy, confidentiality, and security.
Providing similar levels of protection to research activities that pose similar risks.
Relying on standards and requirements that recognize the limitations of traditional de-identification techniques, the inadequacy of binary conceptions of “identifiable” and “publicly-available” information, and the significance of inference risks to privacy.
Creating a new privacy standard based not on a binary identifiability standard, but on the extent to which attributes that may be revealed or inferred depend on an individual’s data and the potential harm that may result.
Requiring investigators to conduct systematic privacy analyses and calibrate their use of privacy and security controls to the specific intended uses and privacy risks at every stage of the information lifecycle.
Addressing informational risks using a combination of privacy and security controls rather than relying on a single control such as consent or de-identification and adopting tiered access models where appropriate.
Forming an advisory committee of data privacy experts to help the Secretary of Health and Human Services develop guidance on applying privacy and security controls that are closely matched to the intended uses and privacy risks in specific research activities.
The authors argue that addressing these issues will help lead researchers towards state-of-the-art privacy practices and advance the exciting research opportunities enabled by new data sources and technologies for collecting, analyzing, and sharing data about individuals.