Encryption and synching

As is common for researchers dealing with human research subjects, security of sensitive data is one of my main concerns. While developing my data management plan, it became clear that I would need to encrypt my data storage devices, including my computer and backup external hard drive.
Encryption, put simply, is the conversion of data into a format that requires a key in order to be decyphered. If you lose your laptop, external hard drive or USB key, it would at least make it very hard for the person that finds it to access your data in an intelligible format.
I have been making enquiries about encryption solutions, and found out that the university’s IT department uses Truecrypt, which is a free open-source software compatible with various operating systems, including Windows 7, Vista, XP and Mac OS X. More information and guidelines on Truecrypt, offered by the University of Exeter’s IT department, can be found at:

It is to be noted that, if you use a university loaned laptop, you may have to request approval prior to encrypting the device. Laptops on loan are not necessarily encrypted, but I was informed that this may change in the future. Very importantly, make sure to remember and keep your key safely!
Another concern of mine is to ensure the data temporarily stored on my iPad – which I use as a data collection tool (notes, audio, fieldwork photos) – would be secured. General opinion seems to be that an iPad is password protected and therefore relatively secured; I would be interested to hear what others think about this. I have also noticed an option to wipe out the data on an iPad/iPhone should the authentication attempts fail 10 times in a row.
I am also currently wondering about the safety of cloud storages such as Dropbox and iCloud. I have been assured by an IT technician who read a lot about Dropbox that it can be considered as safe. I do not have a problem with putting my own documents in there… But what about sensitive research data? I would be interested to know what others make of cloud storage.

I am a bit of a research data hoarder. I am so scared of losing my preciously gathered data that I tend to save it everywhere, with different backups. It is great if your devices are properly protected, unless, like me, you perpetually have to update manually your documents stored in multiple locations. Aside from the time-consuming nature of this process, I have experienced a few instances in the past of missing out on updating a backup file, and thus losing track of the most up to date version of my document. With my current project, I have decided to investigate ways of automating the synching process, to make sure my files are saved and backed-up, saving me time and avoiding missing updates. There is a simple solution that has been discussed by another member of the Open Exeter project in his private blog, which is Synchtoy. This same free software solution was also recommended by a technician from the University’s IT department. All I need to do now is go on a data/folder cleaning spree, plan out properly my storage destinations and process and get the synching going. It will take a bit of time, but as with many things, investing the energy now might save me much more in the future.

Posted under Follow the Data

This post was written by Annie Blanchette on May 23, 2012

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