Certificates of Confidentiality

The privacy of the research subjects may be protected through the issuance of Certificates of Confidentiality. These certificates of Confidentiality provide protection against compelled disclosure of identifying information about subjects enrolled in sensitive biomedical, behavioral, clinical, or other research. This protection is not limited to federally supported research.

Certificates of Confidentiality are issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other HHS agencies to protect identifiable research information from forced or compelled disclosure. They allow the investigator and others who have access to research records to refuse to disclose identifying information on research participants in civil, criminal, administrative, legislative, or other proceedings, whether federal, state, or local. Certificates of Confidentiality may be granted for studies collecting information that, if disclosed, could have adverse consequences for subjects, such as damage to their financial standing, employability, insurability, or reputation. By protecting researchers and institutions from being compelled to disclose information that would identify research subjects, Certificates of Confidentiality help to minimize risks to subjects by adding an additional level of protection for maintaining confidentiality of private information.

Certificates of Confidentiality protect subjects from compelled disclosure of identifying information but do not prevent the voluntary disclosure of identifying characteristics of research subjects. Researchers, therefore, are not prevented from voluntarily disclosing certain information about research subjects, such as evidence of child abuse or a subject’s threatened violence to self or others.

However, if a researcher intends to make such voluntary disclosures, the consent form should clearly indicate this. Furthermore, Certificates of Confidentiality do not prevent other types of intentional or unintentional breaches of confidentiality. As a result, investigators and IRBs must ensure that other appropriate mechanisms and procedures are in place to protect the confidentiality of the identifiable private information to be obtained in the proposed research.

For more information on Certificates of Confidentiality and their limitations, see http://grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/coc/index.htm.

For Certificate of Confidentiality contacts at the National Institutes of Health, see http://grants.nih.gov/grants/policy/coc/contacts.htm.

For information on obtaining a Certificate of Confidentiality for research supported by other HHS agencies, please contact the appropriate program official.