Respecting Participants in Privacy-related User Studies

I was in Darmstadt for Privacy and Security Week last week to present Simply Secure's work on ethics in user research at HotPETS. You can check out the paper and slides on GitHub.

Resources for ethical research

In 2015, we did a field study that we named Straight Talk: New Yorkers on Mobile Messaging and Implications for Privacy. We have since used it as a case study to demonstrate how to work with study participants. Here is a list of resources for user studies that draws from the case.

Additionally, our previous blog posts explain how to use participant recruiting screeners, model releases for photography, and the participant's bill of rights.

Participating in research shouldn't harm people

The Internet Freedom community is keenly aware of the need to protect sources who speak with journalists, but we tend to overlook how to protect research participants as well. Here are some questions to ask yourself next time you do a study:

  • Do you need to record audio and video — are they necessary for publishing results — or will handwritten notes suffice?
  • Are the research participants representative of your target user population? Think not only demographics but also attitudes. If your participants are willing to install logging software and be recorded, are they reasonable approximations of your intended users?
  • Site analytics can encroach on privacy. Given this, what alternatives can you consider that will also help you quantify usability?
  • What's the threat model? What could happen to your participants if others find out that they participated in your research?
  • If your organization requires standard language on an informed consent document, are there options to include a second page that's written in human-centered, accessible language?

Photo of Ame looking at papers with a research participant.
In this interview, the consent forms and model release forms were visibly laid out on the table.

Safeguarding participants is important

It was encouraging at EuroUSEC, PETS, and HotPETS to see so many presenters who shared the results of their user studies. At Simply Secure, we want to assist researchers in approaching their studies mindfully. Please adapt our resources for your use. Our goal is to provide tools that match the needs of a global audience, so let us know where they can use improvement.