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Number 2/2001

Personal Data Act and research materials in Finland

Arja Kuula 5.6.2001


Research ethics and legislation control the activities of a researcher

In social sciences and humanities one is often in a situation where personal information on single individuals is collected and processed. This is most likely to happen while carrying out the collecting of the material, in connection of studies relying on broader register materials, sometimes also during the actual study and analysis process. In this, apart from research ethics, the activities of the researcher are controlled by legislation.

The right to privacy is a basic right in Finland, and in the ethics of science, the respect for human dignity and protection of the anonymity of those studied are in a very prominent position. In detail, the collecting and processing of personal information is regulated by the Personal Data Act (523/99 Hetil). It stipulates the conditions under which personal information can be collected, stored and processed in scientific research.

In the law, by personal information is meant any information on a private individual and his/her personal characteristics or personal circumstances, where these are identifiable as concerning him/her or the members of his/her family or household. The most obvious personal information is of course name, date of birth and address. Less obvious personal information, but making identification possible, is for instance, occupational title combined with age and place of residence.

By personal data file is meant a set of data containing personal information. This can consist of separate entities (files, papers, card indices which in themselves or combined make possible the retrieval of information pertaining to a given person. In the law's terminology, data subjects whose personal information is contained in the research material, are registered.

When can personal information be processed in research?

According to the law, processing of personal information is justified when data subjects unambiguously give their consent to it. (Section 8, paragraph 1). The consent must be voluntary, detailed and a conscious expression of will. The main rule is that personal information is always collected with the consent of the data subjects. A written consent is a guarantee that the contents of the consent can later be verified if need be. At times, however, research cannot be carried out by asking a written consent from all registered persons. For these cases, the law has a provision in section 14. In it, it is said that for the purposes of historical or scientific research, personal data may be processed for a reason not referred to in Section 8, if:

  • the research cannot be carried out without data identifying the person and the consent of the data subjects cannot be obtained owing to the quantity of the data, their age, or another comparable reason;
  • the use of the personal data file is based on an appropriate research plan and a person or a group of persons responsible for the research have been designated;
  • the personal data file is used and data are delivered therefrom only for purposes of historical or scientific research and the procedure followed is also otherwise such that the data pertaining to a given individual are not disclosed to outsiders. (NB: As a rule, delivering refers here to a public or private collector/keeper of a register. When a register containing personal data has been handed over for some research purpose, it is not allowed to pass it on to some other research project/study.).
  • When personal data are no longer necessary for the carrying out of the research or verifying the appropriateness of its results, the personal file data is destroyed or transferred into an archive, or the data in it are altered so that the data subjects can no longer be identified.

In all cases, the privacy of the data subjects must be protected. The obligation to protect holds both for storing and processing the material during research and especially final reports where the anonymity of the data subjects must be ensured.

Detailed information on applying the Personal Data Act in research can be found in Maija Kleemola's article "Tietosuoja ja tieteellinen tutkimus henkilötietolain kannalta" (in Finnish).

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