Grappling with online interviews: the costs of confidentiality

Marianna Lovato |

A UACES Microgrant report by Marianna Lovato.

 

The Covid-19 pandemic has made online interviewing an everyday reality for qualitative research and turned us all into tech wizards (or, at least, self-proclaimed ones).

My research project, which investigates member states’ bargaining strategies and negotiation success in EU foreign policy, heavily relies on qualitative interviews, by virtue of the more secretive and confidential nature of CFSP/CSDP decision-making.

Much like that of many other researchers like me, my PhD project was affected by Covid-related travel restrictions: when I was only a few days into a fieldwork trip to Brussels, the dominos of national lockdowns across Europe back in March 2020 forced me to cut my stay short and start relying solely on online interviews. Zoom quickly emerged as the prevalent videoconferencing platform, but it soon became clear that the platform was falling short when it comes to users’ privacy and compliance with the GDPR (O’Flaherty 2020).

Unsurprisingly, therefore, Zoom was decidedly not the platform of choice for the diplomats and national functionaries that I was hoping to interview. Rather, they opted for a mix of Microsoft Teams, Webex or the platforms made available by their own Ministries, which complied with their national security standards. However, the 50-minute time limit on Webex meetings that comes with the free subscription soon turned out to be a rather problematic feature. I had interviewees cut off mid-sentence and had to send them a second link, with all the problems that this entails, such as having participants lose their train of thought and potentially missing out on critical interview data. Rather quickly, therefore, I resigned to the fact that I would need premium subscriptions to several different videoconferencing platforms at once. This seemingly trivial logistical concern actually calls for a more in-depth discussion around confidentiality and data protection in the context of online interviews, which, for all the burgeoning literature on remote interviewing (see e.g. the dedicated chapter in the 2019 volume by King, Horrocks and Brooks or the 2018 manual by Lee Ann Fujii), does not seem to have been explored in detail. For instance, it would be helpful to have an informed scholarly discussion about the benefits and drawbacks of alternative video conferencing platforms.

Additionally, we should recognize that confidentiality has a price. If we are to take our research participants’ concerns seriously, we should start a conversation about the costs of protecting our participants when carrying out online interviews and about the steps universities are taking to help PhD candidates and early career scholars shoulder the additional costs tied to secure online interviewing. While the latter certainly entails lower expenses than fieldwork research, my own experience shows that extra funding might be necessary to face the costs of multiple subscriptions.

In this sense, UACES certainly set the trend in providing additional funds to cover the costs of online research. As every PhD candidate knows, extra research-related expenses are always a cause for concern. UACES Microgrants scheme was truly the perfect funding opportunity to cover this type of unforeseen and non-negligible cost.