In the December issue of the European Journal of Public Health, two groups of researchers present opposed views on planned changes to the European Data Protection Directive.
One group welcomes a harmonization of data protection rules across Europe, provided that new technologies to protect identities are implemented. Their basic idea seems to be that harmonization facilitates data sharing, and thereby research. So go for harmonization, if the required privacy protecting technologies are put in place.
The other group sees the suggested identity protecting technologies as a threat to epidemiological research. Anonymized or pseudonymized data do not allow researchers to trace complex interactions between life-style, preventive interventions, treatments and outcomes. The harmonization may facilitate data sharing, then, but the technical preparation of the data will be cumbersome, and the data become useless for many important research purposes. So avoid harmonization, if it hinders public health research.
The background to the debate – as I understand it – is the double aim of the harmonization: to facilitate data sharing across borders while simultaneously enhancing the protection of privacy. Individuals have a right to abstain from participating in research. Participation requires that they give informed consent.
A harmonization that demands consent for epidemiological research from each sample or data provider each time a new project uses the data is seen by both groups as a threat to much public health research. Thus one group suggests privacy protecting technologies to avoid the requirement of informed consent. The other group suggests that current national exemptions from the principle of consent work well, with no reported breaches of privacy. And it enables the research that the privacy protecting technologies hinder.
Read the two articles and the editorial, and reflect on where the essence of the problem lies. My view is that the relevant ethical question to consider is whether (or in what sense) we are research participants when our already given samples or data are used in epidemiological research.