Report details progress on new researcher credentialing system, including “Researcher Passport,” to debut in the fall

On the heels of the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the data of 87 million Facebook users was improperly obtained and used by a UK research firm to influence the outcome the 2016 US presidential election, many were left wondering how data accessed by established researchers could have been used inappropriately and without their knowledge.

A new report from a team led by ICPSR Director and U-M Professor Margaret Levenstein, “The Researcher Passport: Improving Data Access and Confidentiality Protection,” details a new process to safeguard the research community’s access to and management of confidential data.

“Virtually all human activity in the modern world creates digital traces. It is our responsibility to ensure that the resulting data is protected and managed responsibly,” Levenstein said.

The Researcher Credentialing for Restricted Data Access project, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, aims to increase the willingness of data custodians to share data, and the ability of researchers to undertake creative analyses, with the least possible risk to privacy and confidentiality.

The project team plans a community-normed System of Digital Identities of Access that provides trusted researchers with a Researcher Passport. Data archives, such as ICPSR, or other data custodians can issue visas to passport holders so that they can access data. The visa will permit the passport holder access to particular datasets for specified periods of time. A pilot of the new credentialing system will debut in fall 2018.

Why the world needs this

Levenstein said that scientific research helps the public better understand the modern world, but “we want data to be used in ethical, responsible, and transparent ways. We advocate making sensitive or private data available to trusted researchers in a secure computing environment, to researchers trained in ethical practices — and with that access governed by legal agreements.”

The white paper offers three recommendations to address inconsistencies the project team found with access to and management of restricted data:

  • Language and process harmonization: Promote common terminology, standards, training, and technologies to support interoperability across data archives and data custodians.
  • Researcher Passport:
    • Verify credentials of trusted researchers to be shared digitally with archives and data custodians.
    • Establish different levels of access and path of progression with increasing trust.
  • Data access visa: Create a digital permissions system that archives and data custodians use to grant access and provide a record of access to restricted data.
Text says: improving data access and confidentiality protection - the researcher passport. On blue background

The research community is poised to take advantage of this system, said Johanna Davidson Bleckman, who is part of the project team. Bleckman said investigators, data producers, repositories, and policymakers share the broad goals of data sharing and evidence-based decision making, “but we all struggle to balance those goals with the need to protect privacy, navigate regulatory restrictions, and to ensure responsible data storage and management. This credentialing system seeks to facilitate the development of community norms around the ‘who, what, where, and how’ of ethical data sharing, storage, and stewardship.”

Bleckman noted that recent data breaches and disclosure of sensitive information from social media platforms and others are a recurring reminder that “our ability to understand who has what data and for what reason, has been outpaced by rapid advancements in technology, increasing personal data sharing via the web, and our shared understanding of privacy.”

The white paper draws on analysis of the policies of 23 data repositories in the United States, Europe, and Australia conducted by U-M School of Information doctoral student Allison Tyler.

Here’s how you can help!

  • This is truly a community effort. We encourage you to share the white paper with your peers via social media, email, etc. We will make another big announcement when the Researcher Passport application process opens in the fall of 2018.
  • Help us design the researcher passport by adding suggestions via this form.

Contact

Dory Knight-Ingram, dkni@umich.edu

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