Privacy & Ethics

What are privacy and ethics?


Privacy has been described as: “the claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is communicated to others.” (1) Some types of information are considered more “private” and sensitive than others and among the most sensitive types of information is information about ones’ health. As a result, the privacy of personal health information (PHI) is protected through ethical and legal principles and legislation.

The two main ethical principles related to privacy of personal health information are consent and confidentiality. Consent relates to the individual’s right to decide who can have access to her/his information while confidentiality imposes a duty to safeguard the secrecy of information concerning another. Security of information is closely tied to both concepts and concerns the methods used to prevent access to information by those who are not authorized.

However, in order for patients to receive health care or benefit from research, personal health information has to be shared with others. Privacy legislation is designed to balance the right to privacy with the need to share information. For example, the Nova Scotia Personal Health Information Act (PHIA) states that its purpose is to …

govern the collection, use, disclosure, retention, disposal and destruction of Personal health information in a manner that recognized both the right of individuals to protect their personal health information and the need of custodians (holders of personal health information) to collect, use and disclose personal health information to provide, support and manage health care.(2)




Why is knowledge of privacy and ethics important?



To protect the right of privacy of individuals whose personal health information is used for research purposes, there are specific requirements set out in the Tri-Council Policy Statement “Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans” (TCPS2) and federal and provincial privacy legislation. These requirements include:

  • obtaining consent (or a consent waiver);
  • limiting the collection, use, disclosure, retention of and access to the information;
  • imposing safeguards to protect the confidentiality and security of the information;
  • identifying any foreseeable risks and how those risks will be mitigated; and
  • ensuring that any publication of research findings does not identify the individuals to whom the information relates.

When preparing their research plan, researchers need to be aware of the requirements in the TCPS2 and all applicable privacy legislation. In addition, if researchers wish to access administrative data without obtaining consent from each individual, they must provide details about the requested data including: its sources, the variables, level of identification, time span, rationale, and level of identification required. Furthermore, specifics about data matching and linkage with other information must be provided.




When do you need to be aware of privacy and ethics?



Short answer - Always!

Long answer – Always!




How do you properly address privacy and ethical matters?



To become knowledgeable about research ethics and receive guidance, researchers should read the full TCPS 2 document and/or take the online TCPS 2 Tutorial Course on Research Ethics (CORE) which applies the principles and guidelines to practical situations.

Researchers are also advised to review the relevant privacy legislation in their applicable province. Links to the main privacy legislation affecting personal health information for each province are provided in the additional resources below.

For an introduction into privacy and research using health administrative data check the MSSU presentation: Research using Health Administrative Data: What’s all the Fuss about Privacy? [PDF - 3.35MB]




How can MSSU help you with privacy and ethical matters?

  • Answer your questions about privacy legislation;
  • Consult with research teams about ethical principles and legal requirements related to research: privacy and confidentiality, consent, and conflict of interest;
  • Provide education / training about privacy ethical and legal standards, policies and best practices; and
  • Review and / or assist with drafting data sharing agreements;

Submit a research intake request for support with your privacy and ethical matters.



Additional resources for privacy and ethics




Provincial Legislation








(1) Klein K, International Association of Privacy Professionals. Canadian privacy : data protection law and policy for the practitioner. Portsmouth, NH: International Association of Privacy Professionals; 2012 at p.1.


(2) Personal Health Information Act S.N.S. 2010 c.41 at s.2


This page was last updated: March 2015