ONLINE PRIVACY: Researchers Use Internet Chat Rooms for Studies
Privacy advocates and Internet users have become concerned by a "disturbing new trend" -- sociologists, psychologists and other researchers "are lurking unannounced in Internet chat rooms and news groups, recording and studying all that's revealed," the New York Post reports. Clinical psychologist Storm King warned that there are "easily hundreds of researchers" engaging in the practice and there will "soon be hundreds more." He added, "The practice has exploded in the last two years," and that growth has been unsupervised. Jeffrey Cohen, director of HHS' Office for the Protection from Research Risk, said, "There are some real ethical issues here that must be addressed. There have been reports of research in published works quoting people in chat rooms." But there are no established guidelines for using the Internet for studies, leading many researchers to "feel free [to] surf and snoop." In most cases, researchers using the Internet are protected by the fair use doctrine, which allows material to be reprinted for educational use. Cohen said that review boards, which are responsible for ensuring research is conducted ethically, "really need to get up to speed." But some review boards feel that "Internet research is no different than walking into a city park and observing human behavior." However, Nancy Baym, an associate communications professor at the University of Kansas, said that chat room participants "often perceive (chat rooms) as private," particularly when they are in support group sites exchanging sensitive information about themselves. Privacy rights attorney Parry Aftab said that Internet users should be aware of potential privacy leaks, saying, "People online are stupid. They think because they're alone in their bedrooms typing onto a screen, their privacy is protected" (Francescani, 5/1).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.