What are the risks when people withdraw data you’ve collected about them?

/ April 6, 2015

Amy O’Donnell from RDF partner organisation Oxfam led a session on the Ethical Treatment of Data in New Digital Landscapes at the Oxford Internet Institute in February. Terence Eden blogged about the event here, raising questions including what could happen if a person decides to withdraw their data from a research project:

[Withdrawal is] a sensible policy which will hopefully reassure participants who may feel uncomfortable about their data being misused.

But withdrawal has its downsides. A user with a pseudo-anonymised data set may be able to correlate changes to the data with known changes to the participant lists. Convince your cousin to drop out of the research and you stand a good chance of working out which “anonymous” participant she was.

Does withdrawing from future collection also mean that past data ought to be removed? Participants may think so. That could lead to irreparable destruction of data rendering the research useless.

Does your organisation let people withdraw data that you have collected about them? Are you facing similar issues, and how do you manage them? Let us know in the comments.

About the contributor

Tom started out writing and editing for newspapers, consultancies and think tanks on topics including politics and corruption in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, then moved into designing and managing election-related projects in countries including Myanmar, Bangladesh, Rwanda and Bolivia. After getting interested in what data and technology could add in those areas and elsewhere, he made a beeline for The Engine Room. Tom is trying to read all of the Internet, but mostly spends his time picking out useful resources and trends for organisations using technology in their work.

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