Research Ethics and the Blackberry Project

Forbes privacy columnist Kashmir Hill recently published a profile of University of Texas-Dallas developmental psychology professor Marion Underwood‘s large-scale research project titled “The Blackberry Project.”

The Blackberry Project (formerly known as the Friendship Project) is an ongoing longitudinal study examining teen behavior and sociability, which first recruited its subjects in 2003 (starting with 281 third and fourth graders from 13 Dallas public schools) and relied on yearly laboratory and home observation and surveys for data collection. Then, in 2009, the subjects (now entering 8th grade) were provided with BlackBerry devices with unlimited text and data plans paid for by the investigators. The devices were configured so that the content of all text messages, e-mail messages, and instant messages was saved to a secure server to be mined by the researchers — over 500,000 messages a month are being archived. Preliminary analyses have been published in Developmental Psychology.

The result? Hill puts it best in her headline and opening thoughts:

A Texas University’s Mind-Boggling Database Of Teens’ Daily Text Messages, Emails, and IMs Over Four Years

For the past four years, the University of Texas-Dallas developmental psychology professor has essentially wire-tapped 175 Texas teens,  capturing every text message, email, photo, and IM sent on Blackberries that she provided to them, creating a rich database that now contains millions of funny, explicit, sexual, and inane messages for academic study. Half a million new messages pour into the database every month. This summer, she’s adding Facebook content to the mix as well. The teens sacrificed their privacy for science… and a free smartphone, data plan and unlimited text messaging.

Dr. Underwood’s study has been approved by UT-Dallas’s Institutional Review Board, and she’s also received a Certificate of Confidentiality from the NIH, which are only granted after considerable scrutiny. Each participant is given a unique identification number so that all information that is collected is, according to the project website, “de-personalized”. The research data is stored securely with the help of Ceryx and Global Relay, data security providers who typically work together to store and archive electronic communication data for financial institutions. The archive is password protected and can only be accessed by a small group of selected researchers.

In short, this large-scale and long-term project has undergone considerable review, and appears to be taking privacy and security quite seriously. That said, there remain certain ethical concerns about the research worth discussing.

(Note: my discussion is based on what I can glean from available reports and documents about the study; I’m trying to gather additional information through various channels.)

Consent

Since the Blackberry Project (and its predecessor) focus on studying the activity of minors, gaining informed consent is of particular importance. Participants and parents were required to sign detailed consent forms annual that clearly stated that all electronic communication were be recorded and monitored. (While the consent forms for the earlier Friendship Project are available online, I haven’t been able to locate the consent documents for the Blackberry Project. I’ll request them from Dr. Underwood.) It appears this consent process was repeated annually, which is particularly important as subjects grow and develop, and the content of their text and email messages might change over time (for example, 10th graders might start texting about dangerous or legal activity, which might not have been contemplated when original consent was provided years earlier).

Parental consent for minor subjects is standard procedure. However, I wonder how well a parent actually understands the extent to which adolescents make use of mobile texting, and whether a parent really is equipped to represent (and waive) the privacy interests of their adolescent kids if they fail to recognize both the scale and types of information contained within those text messages. Is parental consent really sufficient when we’re dealing with teenager’s use of social media and personal technology? This is something I’ll need to think about more….

Further, any consent granted only involves the participants themselves and their outgoing messages. But those sending messages to the participants have not consented to having their messages stored and subjected to analysis. Underwood recognizes this problem, but argues it away:

Pioneering researchers studying online communication have argued that electronic communication can be observed without permission in some contexts because the information need not be uniquely identifiable, unless individuals have chosen to make their online user name their actual name (see Subrahmanyam et al., 2006; Whitlock, Powers, & Eckenrode, 2006). In our study, although we did have access to participants’ phone contacts and could see how they labeled individuals there, these were rarely uniquely identifiable, because most adolescents chose to label contacts with first names only or with nicknames.

However, I find this argument a bit thin. Just because some “pioneering researchers” claim it is acceptable to study online messages observed without permission “in some contexts” doesn’t make it necessarily ethical here. Hopefully the IRB pressed hard on this issue.

Undue Influence

Consent is only valid if it doesn’t involve coercion or undue influence. While paying research subjects is commonplace and generally acceptable, the fact that subjects in the Blackberry Project received a free smartphone with fully paid data and texting plans (and a generous 300 minute voice plan) might quality as undue influence. The Office of Human Research Protections defines undue influence when researchers offer an “excessive or inappropriate reward or other overture in order to obtain compliance.” OHRP also notes that “The level of remuneration should not be so high as to cause a prospective subject to accept risks that he or she would not accept in the absence of the remuneration.”

This is where the free Blackberries and service plans might be problematic. Since 11% of the participating families had incomes under $25,000, and 29% under $50,000, the allure of a free, “highly attractive” smartphone, complete with a free and unlimited data plan, might have persuaded some lower-income families to participate who otherwise might have considered the project too risky. If you’re on a tight budget, and your kids keep pestering you for a smartphone, the Blackberry Project might have been a lifesaver, regardless of the risks.

Determining undue influence is a grey area, and, again, I hope that UT-Dallas’s IRB considered this matter with vigor.

Privacy and Anonymity

Underwood has taken great lengths to protect subject privacy, including the use of secure, off-campus data storage platforms and replacing account names with ID numbers within the archive. Yet, considerable privacy concerns remain. There are plenty of cases where simply replacing names with ID numbers fails to provide sufficient anonymity, and the content of the messages themselves might reveal various personal details of the participants and their friends. The researchers indicate they use the participants address books to help “replace phone numbers with whatever the participants used to label their contacts” when compiling transcripts. While some of these labels might be un-identifiable, others might effectively “out” particular people within the dataset.

The Forbes article also notes:

Underwood has gotten calls from investigators around the country who would love access to her database, but she says she doesn’t want to hand over the data unless she can de-identify it or anonymize it. I’m imagining many a privacy scholar shaking his or her head in dismay given how difficult true anonymization is.

Indeed. I’m curious to know what steps toward deidentification or anonymization Underwood intends before sharing the data.

The Forbes piece presses Underwood further about the issue of privacy:

When I asked Underwood if any of the kids (or their parents) had ever expressed concern about the privacy of their communications, and the discomfort they might feel about every single thing they send being archived indefinitely for study, she said it had been a “non-issue.”

“We haven’t really directly asked about it. We don’t do anything to draw attention to our monitoring,” says Underwood. She prefers that teenagers act naturally. Asking them too strongly about how they feel about their privacy might negatively affect the “observing them in the wild” aspect of her study.

This troubles me. Here, a researcher collecting millions of personal messages sent between teens admits to not wanting to directly address privacy with the subjects because it might negatively affect the study. If you bring up the privacy concern, Underwood seems to say, it will just cause them to self-censor. Of course, if her hypothesis is true, that validates the privacy concern itself — the participants might actually care about their privacy, once reminded about it. (Note to researchers: if you find yourself wanting to minimize disclosure of privacy concerns, then you have significant privacy concerns that need to be addressed.)

In sum, the Blackberry Project appears to have been managed properly through the IRB rules and regulations. These open issues speak more to the nature of this kind of research generally, versus about this project specifically. I’m very curious as to how the researchers and the IRB discussed and deliberated these issues, and will provide any updates if I’m able to gain access to more details.

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