Anonymity vs. Confidentiality

Distinction between anonymous participation in a survey and results remaining confidential…

As a Masters student at Arizona State University, we took the IRB process and privacy of the participants very seriously. Confidentiality of responses meant the source could speak freely with responses for the questionnaire or survey. Prior to sending out a questionnaire, we would ensure the potential participants the responses would remain confidential or anonymous. For anonymous surveys, we would list details for potential participants regarding how the survey results or responses would remain anonymous.

Imagine if someone were to take a survey, ensured confidentiality and then this confidentiality was broken.

What could happen?

  1. Lost Confidence or Trust in the surveyor
  2. Reluctance to participate in any other surveys conducted by the University
  3. Reprimand by management regarding responses to “confidential” survey.
  4. Reluctance to freely speak during a subsequent survey
  5. Censorship — including self censorship
  6. Potential Legal Liability

To collect usable data from participants that could eventually be analyzed and transformed into usable information, researchers will usually state the survey will be confidential or anonymous.

Note: A survey is anonymous or confidential and cannot be both.

Confidential: The definition of confidential is we know who you are based on IP address or email or MAC address. We can identify you based on some question in the survey such as title. A confidential survey requires the participant know the responses will be collected and stored in a secure way because the participant can be identified. This means, if I respond to a survey that is allegedly confidential, my responses are my own and kept secure. This way, I can speak my mind or opinion about what I saw and the feedback I give is mine alone and does not reflect my manager, or my team.

Anonymous: To be an anonymous participant means there are no identifying markers to connect the participant with the responses. Online survey tools without IP addresses could be one form of anonymous collection. Surveys with demographics may not be good for anonymous surveys as identity may be discovered using these markers. When conducting anonymous surveys, indicate how you intend to keep the results anonymous. The best way to do this is to analyze the data at the group level.

Length of Data Collection: Length of storing data is important. The topic of my applied project was the Technology, Education and Copyright Harmonization Act of 2002. Within this act is a section regarding limitation on how long materials are posted within a class. That being said, there is somewhat of a baseline for data collection time limitations.

Inform the participants about the details of data collection.

  • How long will the data be stored
  • Where will the data be stored
  • How will the data be deleted or destroyed after the time limitation expires

Overall, be a trustworthy surveyor. If you indicate survey responses are confidential, then keep those responses confidential. Otherwise, the results could be disconcerting.