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ResourcesHuman Research EthicsWas it Ethical for Dropbox to Share Customer Data with Scientists? – Wired (Emily Dreyfuss | July 2018)

Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Was it Ethical for Dropbox to Share Customer Data with Scientists? – Wired (Emily Dreyfuss | July 2018)

Published/Released on July 24, 2018 | Posted by Admin on September 18, 2018 / , , , , , , , ,

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FOR THE PAST two years, researchers at Northwestern University have been analyzing the habits of tens of thousands of scientists—using Dropbox. Looking at data about academics’ folder-sharing habits, they found the most successful scientists share some collaboration behaviors in common. And on Friday, they published their results in an article for the Harvard Business Review.

Another ‘good’ story about digital data, privacy and consent. If we were on the reviewing research ethics committee we would have lots of questions about anonymisation. Especially with regard to identifying information within text and that’s without even thinking about identification by inference and internal identification (even if we are only talking about the research team having access to the data).  And then there’s IP…

The study quickly attracted the notice of academics—but not for the reason Dropbox and the researchers had hoped. One sentence in particular caught readers’ attention: “Dropbox gave us access to project-folder-related data, which we aggregated and anonymized, for all the scientists using its platform over the period from May 2015 to May 2017—a group that represented 1,000 universities.” Written by Northwestern University Institute on Complex Systems professors Adam Pah and Brian Uzzi and Dropbox Manager of Enterprise Insights Rebecca Hinds, that wording suggested Dropbox had handed over personally identifiable information on hundreds of thousands of customers.
By Tuesday, Harvard Business Review had corrected that part of the article to say the data was anonymized and aggregated prior to being given to the researchers. “Before providing any Dropbox users’ data to the researchers, Dropbox permanently anonymized the data by rendering any identifying user information unreadable, including individual emails and shared folder IDs,” a Dropbox spokesperson told WIRED. But while Dropbox’s more than half a billion users can rest easy that their de-anonymized data isn’t readily shared with researchers, the only consent Dropbox obtained from customers involved in the study was their agreement to its privacy policy and terms of service, according to representatives for Dropbox.

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