New mobile app for sexuality research pulled back over privacy concerns

The Kinsey Institute in the USA has long been a seat of scholarship on sexuality. In September 2012, they developed an application (app) for people using Apple and Android devices to report their sexual activities.



This innovative use of new technologies may sound simply like the surveys done of sexual activities, but this would offer multiple opportunities for long-term longitudinal studies and accept input from all over the world.



The weakness from a research perspective is the reliance on self-reporting: put more simply, people lie, and they lie about sex, too. Men may be more likely to overstate their activities than women, and women may be more likely to understate their numbers of partners, for example, to conform to social norms of male experience and women’s relative lack thereof being more desirable. This is made up for a bit by the anonymity of the reporting; people are more likely to be honest if something cannot be traced back to them.



The Institute says that it has enabled anonymous contributions to the survey, and that it keeps no information but what is reported by the user. However, mobile devices, such as the iPhone or Android phones, have a unique identifying number called a device ID. An application running on the phone can access this ID and include it as part of any response that it sends, allowing the app maker to link your responses to other information associated with that ID.



Applications may also have access to other information stored on the device, including the name or email address of the owner, their location, their contacts and more. An app could be designed to send back some or all of this private information and store it

with your survey answers.



There’s no reason to think that the Kinsey survey app does any such thing. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember there’s a big difference between a web-based survey and a survey implemented as an app.



The creator of a web survey has access only to limited information about you: very limited indeed, if you take a few simple precautions. A survey app, however, runs on a gadget that stores a large amount of personal or identifying information, some or all of which may be accessible to the app. A malicious app could gather a great deal more information about you than you might like.



The Kinsey Institute has said that they will not track users not only to their accountability users but also to their ethical review board. While the review board may not understand the technological issues, the man who created the app seems to understand and has worked with not only the Institute and its review board but external legal professionals as well.



The Institute would jeopardize the good reputation they have built up over decades if they were to track users. Indeed, just a few weeks after the release of the app, Indiana University pulled it in order to further investigate privacy concerns.



Let’s look forward to these issues being worked out and the re-introduction of the app. One very interesting aspect of this survey was that they are encouraging people to report unwanted sexual experiences. This could provide a source of information about the scope of rape and assault, but maybe street harassment and groping of women and assault of men and transgender people will be reported. Events that may not be reported to law enforcement may be documented using this app.



Many people describe difficulty addressing street harassment and abuse using local law enforcement, and more documentation may encourage others to take these issues more seriously. Consider the hollaback! movement, women confronting men who harass them in public, which is rarely reported or addressed and was rarely documented before hollaback!



Harassing people using sexual language could be considered a non-consensual sexual act, perhaps not about sex as much as intimidation or interpretations of male gender roles. Such may be more interesting to scholars of gender than sexual behavior, but this use of technology may further document harassment of a sort that I used to hear men say they did not ever witness before hollaback! started.