Science and Technology Innovation Program

Sharing data while protecting privacy in citizen science

By
Anne Bowser, Andrea Wiggins, Lea Shanley, Jennifer Preece, and Sandra Henderson

Every day, millions of citizen sciencists participate in research to share real-world goals. Traditional scientific research has well-established rules and procedures, such as informed consent, to ensure the privacy and security of individual participants. In contrast, citizen science projects frequently are created by community members who come together with shared concerns, such as air pollution or loss of habitat. Consequently, citizen science practices and the technologies that support them may be designed without privacy in mind.

Successfully including the public in science requires careful planning, attention to relevant laws and regulations, and adopting appropriate policies and ethical best practices. Relevant laws and regulations, including COPPA and HIPPA, are briefly reviewed. This article then takes a case study approach to establish how citizen science can pose a threat to participant privacy by drawing on two projects that collect location-based data, and share this information as open source. Best practices for designing technologies and policies to support participant privacy are discussed.

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