Background: Modern research is heavily reliant on online and mobile technologies, which is particularly true among historically hard-to-reach populations such as gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (GBMSM). Despite this, very little empirical research has been published on participant perspectives about issues such as privacy, trust, and data sharing.
Objective: The objective of our study was to analyze data from an online sample of 11,032 GBMSM in the United States to examine their trust in and perspectives on privacy and data sharing within online and mobile research.
Methods: Participants were recruited via a social networking site or sexual networking app to complete an anonymous online survey. We conducted a series of repeated measures analyses adjusted for between-person factors to examine within-person differences in the following: (1) trust for guarding personal information across different venues (eg, online research conducted by a university vs. an online search engine); (2) privacy concerns about 12 different types of data for three distinct data activities (ie, collection by app owners, anonymous selling to third parties, and anonymous sharing with researchers); and (3) willingness to share those 12 different types of data with researchers. Due to the large sample size, we primarily reported measures of effect size as evidence of clinical significance.
Results: Online research was rated as most trusted and was more trusted than online and mobile technology companies, such as app owners and search engines, by magnitudes of effect that were moderate-to-large (ηpartial2=0.06-0.11). Responding about 12 different types of data, participants expressed more concerns about data being anonymously sold to third-party partners (mean 7.6, median 10.0) and fewer concerns about data being collected by the app owners (mean 5.8, median 5.0) or shared anonymously with researchers (mean 4.6, median 3.0); differences were small-to-moderate in size (ηpartial2=0.01-0.03). Furthermore, participants were most willing to share their public profile information (eg, age) with researchers but least willing to share device usage information (eg, other apps installed); the comparisons were small-to-moderate in size (ηpartial2=0.03).
Conclusions: Participants reported high levels of trust in online and mobile research, which is noteworthy given recent high-profile cases of corporate and government data security breaches and privacy violations. Researchers and ethical boards should keep up with technological shifts to maintain the ability to guard privacy and confidentiality and maintain trust. There was substantial variability in privacy concerns about and willingness to share different types of data, suggesting the need to gain consent for data sharing on a specific rather than broad basis. Finally, we saw evidence of a privacy paradox, whereby participants expressed privacy concerns about the very types of data-related activities they have likely already permitted through the terms of the apps and sites they use regularly.