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Too Much Information: Visual Research Ethics in the Age of Wearable Cameras

Abstract

When everything you see is data, what ethical principles apply? This paper argues that first-person digital recording technologies challenge traditional institutional approaches to research ethics, but that this makes ethics governance more important, not less so. We review evolving ethical concerns across four fields: Visual ethics; ubiquitous computing; mobile health; and grey literature from applied or market research. Collectively, these bodies of literature identify new challenges to traditional notions of informed consent, anonymity, confidentiality, privacy, beneficence and maleficence. Challenges come from the ever-increasing power, breadth and multi-functional integration of recording technologies, and the ubiquity and normalization of their use by participants. Some authors argue that these evolving relationships mean that institutional ethics governance procedures are irrelevant or no longer apply. By contrast, we argue that the fundamental principles of research ethics frameworks have become even more important for the protection of research participants, and that institutional frameworks need to adapt to keep pace with the ever-increasing power of recording technologies and the consequent risks to privacy. We conclude with four recommendations for efforts to ensure that contemporary visual recording research is held appropriately accountable to ethical standards: (i) minimizing the detail, scope, integration and retention of captured data, and limiting its accessibility; (ii) formulating an approach to ethics that takes in both the ‘common rule’ approaches privileging anonymity and confidentiality together with principles of contextual judgement and consent as an ongoing process; (iii) developing stronger ethical regulation of research outside academia; (iv) engaging the public and research participants in the development of ethical guidelines.

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Acknowledgments

This paper benefited from presentation and feedback at the ‘First person perspective digital ethnography’ seminar series, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.[ES/JO21350/1]

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Correspondence to Tze Ming Mok.

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Mok, T.M., Cornish, F. & Tarr, J. Too Much Information: Visual Research Ethics in the Age of Wearable Cameras. Integr. psych. behav. 49, 309–322 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12124-014-9289-8

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Keywords

  • Ethics
  • Digital research
  • Ubiquitous computing
  • Research governance
  • Visual ethics
  • Privacy
  • Wearable cameras