Confidentiality relates to the duty to maintain confidence and thereby respect privacy. People's right to privacy is enshrined in Article 12 of the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). UN member countries are morally, if not legally, bound by such declarations. Privacy relates to personal information that a person would not wish others to know without prior authorization. Under the ethical principle of respect for a person's autonomy, public health workers have an obligation to respect privacy. Privacy relates to a person's right to be free from the attention of others. What a person regards as private is a personal choice, and it can change throughout one's life. For example, illicit drug use in youth may be something about which one boasts. Later in life, however, one might prefer that such information not be known to others.
When people agree to participate in research, they are expected to provide personal information, and researchers must commit to respecting and maintaining the confidentiality of their subjects. When people disclose private information for any public health purpose it is expected that the information will be held in confidence. Only with this trust can public health programs succeed.
Anonymity differs from confidentially, in that the name of a person is not known. However, where certain characteristics of a person are known, it could be possible for others to establish who the person is. For example, if it were said that a person
COLIN L. SOSKOLNE
Mann, J. M.; Gouskins, S.; Grodin, M. A.; Annas, G. J., eds. (1999). Health and Human Rights: A Reader. New York and London: Routledge.