Data confidentiality: do not fill in the Guardian riot survey.

Following yesterday’s riots in Tottenham, the Guardian has launched a survey to seek further information about what happened. It is spun as an attempt to understand why the riots took place following in a rich academic tradition of post-riot interviewing.

If you were in Tottenham, do not fill in the survey. 

Here’s the thing: with academic research, there are certain rules surrounding how survey information is used. Before one does a survey, one has to apply for ethical permission and fulfil criteria to make sure that the data stay confidential, with those who provided it remaining completely confidential. This means that research surrounding sensitive issues such as illegal activity can be gathered without putting the participant at risk. On the flip side, it means more honest responses which will help researchers gain a better understanding of the issue. What is collected in academic surveys is completely unidentifiable. It’s research ethics.

The Guardian survey does not do this. 

There is no guarantee of confidentiality to be seen. Information which could possibly lead to the arrest of the survey participant or acquaintances with no guarantee of any safeguards. Given that political policing and political sentencing are so prevalent these days, it is not safe to fill in this survey. Given that the phone-hacking scandal has exposed that it is almost commonplace for information to exchange hands between journalists and police, it is not safe to fill in this survey. You may land yourself in trouble. You may land your friends in trouble.

Show solidarity. Stay safe. Do not fill in the survey.

5 thoughts on “Data confidentiality: do not fill in the Guardian riot survey.”

  1. But why would you expect a newspaper to follow academic standards? Besides, as far as I know, the police can access academic surveys etc. when investigating a crime, no matter what the confidentialiy agreement says. It can’t override the law… (That’s not to say people shouldn’t be careful about who they share data with, mind…)

    1. I mention academic standards to demonstrate the gold standard in keeping data–for police to get hold of it, they need to leap through a lot of hoops. I use it as a contrast to demonstrate how frankly worrying it is that the Graun don’t even bother mentioning data protection.

  2. Looking at the survey, it asks for contact details “if you are willing”. The risk, I am fairly certain, would be minimal if you provided no contact details, and took care to anonymise any other information you gave.

    There is a chance that you could be identified from your public IP address stored in the server logs. However, this would not be a reliable way of identifying you. if, for example, you logged on from a public internet café.

    So I would suggest the advice should be “if you do want to fill this in, but believe you or others may be at risk from information you could give, please do not give contact details, and make sure the information you give is properly anonymous. If you want to make doubly sure, connect from a public internet café that does not require you to provide ID”.

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