Several weeks ago, in “A Question of Ethics“, I asked EC readers whether it would be ethical “to deliberately seek out files containing PII as made available via P2P networks”. I had recently read an academic research paper that did just that, and was left conflicted. Part of me wondered whether a review board would pass such a research proposal, or whether the research in the paper was even submitted for review. Another part told me that the information was made publicly available, so my hand-wringing was unwarranted. In the back of my mind, I knew that as information security researchers increasingly used the methods of the social sciences and psychology these ethical considerations would trouble me again.
Through Chris Soghoian’s blog post regarding the ethical and legal perils possibly facing the authors of a paper which describes how they monitored Tor traffic, I realized I was not alone. Indeed, in a brief but cogent paper, Simson Garfinkel describes how even seemingly uncontroversial research activities, such as doing a content analysis on the SPAM one has received, could run afoul of existing human research subject review guidelines.
Garfinkel argues that strict application of rules governing research involving human subjects can provide researchers with incentives to actively work against the desired effect of the reviews. He further suggest thats
society would be better served with broader exemptions that could be automatically applied by researchers without going to an IRB [Institutional Review Board].
My concern at the moment is with the other side of this. I just read a paper which examined the risks of using various package managers. An intrinsic element of the research behind this paper was setting up a mirror for popular packages under false pretenses. I don’t know if this paper was reviewed by an IRB, and I certainly don’t have the expertise needed to say whether it should have been allowed to move forward if it was. However, the fact that deception was used made me uneasy. Maybe that’s just me, but maybe there are nuances that such research is beginning to expose and that we as an emergent discipline should strive to stay on top of.
[Update: The researchers whose Tor study was examined by Soghoian have posted a portion of a review conducted by the University of Colorado:
Based on our assessment and understanding of the issues involved in your work, our opinion was that by any reasonable standard, the work in question was not classifiable as human subject research, nor did it involve the collection of personally identifying information. While the underlying issues are certainly interesting and complex, our opinion is that in this case, no rules were violated by your not having subjected your proposed work to prior IRG scrutiny. Our analysis was confined to this IRG (HRC) issue.
This conclusion is in line with Richard Johnson’s comment below, that this research was not on people, but on network traffic.]