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San Diego State University

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Lesson 3: Privacy, Anonymity, and Confidentiality


A fundamental principle that guides any research involving human subjects is privacy. Anyone who has agreed to participate in a data collection survey can expect that his or her responses will remain private and secure. It is this expectation of privacy that provides respondents the assurance that others will not use their truthful responses in ways other than intended. Ensuring privacy and how this relates to the ideas of anonymity and confidentiality are examined in this lesson.

Lesson Objectives

The lesson addresses the following points:
  1. provide definitions and distinguish between the concepts of privacy, confidentiality, and anonymity as they relate to studies involving human subjects
  2. articulate ways when confidentiality may be violated
  3. articulate ways when anonymity may be violated
  4. identify cases/conditions where issues of confidentiality and anonymity would require research to undergo IRB review

Lesson Resources 

  • Lesson 3: Privacy, Anonymity, and Confidentiality (Interactive Video)
  • Supplemental Online Resources
    1. Whelan, T. J. (2007, October). Anonymity and confidentiality: Do survey respondents know the difference? Poster presented at the 30th annual meeting of the Society of Southeastern Social Psychologists, Durham, NC.
    2. Cal Poly Pomona IRB. (n.d.). Anonymous versus confidential. 
    3. Regis University. Model for confidential (not anonymous) survey.

Learning Activities

  1. Clarifying Anonymity and Confidentiality
    1. Describe for students a situation in which a source of information (e.g., a caller to a police tip hotline) provides information but does not want her identity revealed.
    2. Describe a situation in which a source of information (e.g., a confidential source for a news report such as Deep Throat) provides information but does on the condition that one hides their identity from others.
    3. Discuss the following questions:
      1. How are both of these situations related to privacy?
      2. What makes the situations different?
      3. In what survey context might it be useful ensure respondents remain anonymous?
      4. In what survey context might it be useful ensure respondents’ identities are kept confidential but they are not anonymous?
  2. Preparing a letter for an anonymous or confidential survey
    1. Have students review the template for a confidential survey from Regis University 
    2. Have them identify the elements that indicate why this template would meet the requirements to be a confidential survey.
    3. Discuss what one would need to change to use this template as an anonymous survey.

Reflection/Discussion Topics

  1. What are the advantages of using an anonymous or confidential survey?
  2. Are there situations where it is not possible to use either an anonymous or a confidential survey?
  3. What are the potential harms that could arise in a confidential survey? (This is one reason it may need IRB review.)

Additional Resources

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (n.d.). Survey guidelines. Retrieved from