Continuing with the posts I've been doing over the past two weeks about my new book, Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism, today I want to write a bit about the security concerns that my co-author and I confronted in doing this research. Some of this is generalizable to other qualitative empirical research, but some of it is very particular to the topic we were researching.
The generalizable concerns are not terribly new, so I'll be quick with them. The big concern we had here, which is true with most qualitative research (though not all), was in protecting the identities of our interview subjects. We labeled all computer files associated with a particular subject with a random number, rather than names, and had only one password-protected file that linked the random numbers with individual names. That file was on a non-networked hard-drive and backed up to a non-networked backup drive. There were no other copies of the file, and it could not be accessed remotely. The consent forms that individuals signed, which had their real names on them, were not in any way associated with their random number and were kept in a locked file cabinet in alphabetical order.
As I wrote in an earlier post, in writing the book, we used fake names for each subject in our book (except for the small number who insisted on real names) and used the Census Bureau region map to identify where a person worked. We offered each person the opportunity to approve the fake name and the descriptive region, with some wanting a different name or more generalized region description (or none at all) to protect their identity.
These are all fairly standard concerns, though. What was more interesting with our research were the concerns that came from the topic - anti-abortion harassment and terrorism. Because of this topic, with its history of intimidation, targeting, and violence, there were extra security precautions as part of the research:
- Limitations on initial contact: We were prohibited by our IRB from making the initial contact with any of our possible research subjects. In other words, they had to come to us; we couldn't go to them. Thus, even if one of our subjects told us about someone they knew who would be a valuable person to interview (a pretty standard way to get more interview subjects), we had to ask the initial person to contact their friend and ask that person to then email or call us. This was cumbersome, but it made sense. After all, we were studying individualized harassment, so an unwelcome phone call from a stranger could add to the sense of being harassed. Or worse - the person we called may not know whether to trust us and may feel that this is a possible trick to get personal information from them. We didn't want to put anyone in that position, so we strictly followed this IRB requirement even though it made subject enrollment more difficult.
- Professional conference security: Partly due to what I just described, pretty early on we got some great advice to attend a professional meeting of abortion providers so we could have a booth advertising our research for potential interview subjects. For the exact reasons we wrote our book, this conference was like no other professional conference that I've heard about. The date and location are secret. In order to find out that information, we had to get letters of reference from two people already trusted by the organizer. In the weeks leading up to it, we received notices about confidentiality and secrecy about the conference and its location. When we got there, bomb-sniffing dogs and large men and women wearing gray suits and earpieces were all over the conference venue. Name tags had to be worn at all times and then taken off upon leaving the conference area. One morning, we had to wait 15 minutes to enter the conference area because the dogs had to do an extra bomb check. These security measures were in place so that abortion providers are kept safe. It presents a barrier to entry for researchers, but a barrier that is necessary given the history of violence and targeting.
- Our own personal security: We have often gotten the question "do you fear the anti-abortion extremists will come after you?" Relatedly, "do you need extra security for your research data in your office?" While we can never be 100% sure, history tells us that we don't need to be concerned about this. Anti-abortion extremists have gone after all sorts of providers -- doctors, nurses, administrators, counselors, volunteers, security guards, and more -- but they have not, so far, targeted attorneys and researchers. This, of course, could change, but we made a decision early on not to let this concern get to us unless for some reason we had reason to believe otherwise.
There were other security-related concerns doing this work, but these were the most significant. It's pretty safe to say that empirical research presents security concerns that traditional legal research does not.