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GDPR has a huge impact on empirical software engineering research

April 5th, 2018 3 comments

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is going to have a huge impact on empirical software engineering research. After 25 May 2018, analyzing source code will never be the same again.

I am not a lawyer and nothing qualifies me to talk about the GDPR.

People put their name in source code, bug tracking databases and discussion forums; this is personal identifying information.

Researchers use personal names to obtain information about a wide variety of activities, e.g., how much code did individuals write, how many bug reports did they process, contributions in discussions of one sort or another.

Open source licenses give others all kinds of rights (e.g., ability to use and modify source code), but they do not contain any provisions for processing personal data.

Adding a “I hereby give permission for anybody to process information about my name in any way they see fit.” clause to licenses is not going to help.

The GDPR requires (article 5: Principles relating to processing of personal data):

“Personal data shall be: … collected for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes and not further processed in a manner that is incompatible with those purposes;”

That is, personal data can only be processed for the specific reason it was collected, i.e., if you come up with another bright idea for analysis of data that has just been collected, it may be necessary to obtain consent, from those whose personal data it is, before trying out the bright idea.

It is not possible to obtain blanket permission (article 6, Lawfulness of processing):

“…the data subject has given consent to the processing of his or her personal data for one or more specific purposes;”, i.e., consent has to be obtained from the data subject for each specific purpose.

Github’s Global Privacy Practices shows that Github are intent on meeting the GDPR requirements, they include: “GitHub provides clear methods of unambiguous, informed consent at the time of data collection, when we do collect your personal data.”. Processing personal information, about an EU citizen, contained in source code appears to be a violation of Github’s terms of service.

The GDPR has many other requirements, e.g., right to obtain information on what information is held and right to be forgotten. But, the upfront killer is not being able to cheaply collect lots of code and then use personal information to help with the analysis.

There are exceptions for: Processing for archiving, scientific or historical research or statistical purposes. Can somebody who blogs and is writing a book claim to be doing scientific research? People who know more about these exceptions than me, tell me that there could be a fair amount of paperwork involved when making use of the exception, i.e., being able to show that privacy safeguards are in place.

Then, there is the issue of what constitutes personal information. Git’s hashing algorithm makes use of the committer’s name and/or email address. Is a git hash personal identifying information?

A good introduction to the GDPR for developers, and one for researchers.