Public and Private Behavior

This page provides guidance about the distinction between public and private behavior, including what that distinction has to do with public and private places. In general, we can distinguish between public behavior in public places, private behavior in public places, and private behavior in private places. The Interaction Research Exemption specifically mentions "observations of public behavior" as a kind of research that is eligible for exemption; it does not state that all behavior in public places counts as "public behavior." Therefore, the primary determining factor for seeking this exemption when carrying out observation research is not where the observation is taking place but what kind of behavior is being observed.

To understand what counts as public behavior, it is necessary to know what does not count as public behavior, or what we can define as private behavior. Private behavior "occurs in a context in which an individual can reasonably expect that no observation or recording is taking place, and [that] information that has been provided for specific purposes by an individual...will not be made public (e.g., a medical record)" (Federal IRB law: 45 CFR 46.102(e)(4))

Please note that while a "context" is mentioned in this legal definition, there is no mention of whether the behavior is occurring in a public or a private place. Certainly, many behaviors in places that we would consider private (someone's home, for example) would be readily understood as private behaviors. However, behavior in public places might still be understood as private behavior and therefore as not eligible for research using the Interaction Research Exemption.

The Colorado College IRB interprets the law as stating that "private behavior" may occur in public or quasi-public places such as the following:
  • Restaurants
  • Airports
  • Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other worship spaces
  • Stadia and other sports venues
  • Schools, including elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and colleges/universities
  • Internet chat rooms and other private online spaces (a Facebook post could count as either private or public behavior depending on context; a Twitter post would be understood as public behavior)

Please take this distinction into account when completing the Interaction Research Exemption Determination Form or when describing observation research in a regular IRB application. As always, please contact IRB Chair Amanda Udis-Kessler at with questions or concerns.

Report an issue - Last updated: 08/30/2021