Researchers should use privacy-respecting survey tools!

I created this topic, because I see researchers on this forum, and everywhere else create surveys using Google Forms (not just researchers, but just about anyone creating a survey, like the startup incubator I had to describe in detail my innovative idea to, in a 20-page form).

The description often states: “We only use your personal data for our research”, or “This survey is anonymous”, etc.

I see this claim made by many (most) people who are using Google Forms. This service is ‘free’ and it is very easy to set up a survey like yours. However, you are not anonymous when filling out the survey.

You give all the data away to Google and its affiliates to be used in any way they seem fit. And remember, Google is a bigger data harvester than even Facebook.

From the Google Terms of Use:

When you upload, submit, store, send or receive content to or through our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our Services (for example, for a business listing you have added to Google Maps).


Our automated systems analyze your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customized search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.

When someone fills out the form (or browses the web in general), in addition to the data they provide, they leak a detailed data footprint with which the person can (and will) be identified.

In the privacy policy you can read more on the information they collect, how that information is used, and how it is shared.

Personally I think it should be a best-practice if researchers use professional tools to conduct their research. For surveys that would entail selecting a privacy-respecting online survey tool.

I am not familiar with what is on the market, but a quick search led me to QuestionPro, to use as an example. This tool offers a bunch of privacy and security ensurances, and also their own Privacy Policy offers guarantees:


Any information shared with QuestionPro during the creation of a survey is owned solely by the administrator of that survey. By the nature of how our service works, surveys need to be shared via a URL on the Internet. We provide the option to password-protect your surveys if they contain sensitive content. Email addresses uploaded to the system for the purpose of sending survey invitations and email communication are owned solely by the survey administrator. We will never share any information uploaded to the system with any 3rd parties. Data collected through surveys is owned solely by the survey administrator. By default, the data is only accessible by providing a username and password and logging into the site.

So concluding:

Best practice: Use a privacy-respecting survey tool when conducting surveys!


It’s a good point. Normally here in the UK ethical review panels, particularly with the new EU GDPR data protection regs, insist upon secure and private options. Examples include and amongst others. It may depend on whether people are doing this for Masters or post-gradute/post-doc and above, as well as what data is being collected. In general, data should be held within UK or EU due to the problematic nature of post safe-harbour agreement status with the US. Likewise, I would never store research data on dropbox, google etc. We have our own in-house secure encrypted file-sharing and storage facilities. The problem is, there is both ease of use and inertia with other options.

Yes, agree. At the minimum there should not be incorrect claims on anonymity and privacy. Filling in a Google Form is fine, if you don’t mind that data to be collected.

Agreed. The participant must be giving informed consent

At SocialHub one member just mentioned a number of open-source, privacy-respecting survey tools, that are good to list here:

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Hey, how about I have built my survey using that now, it seems they use blockchain technology and e2e encryption of responses as well.

I hadn’t heard of the project. It looks quite complete, and with the proper focus on privacy and such. But I don’t think that the integrated blockchain technology works in your favour here. It is quite controversial tech still (elaboration on that is off topic for this thread, though).