Data Protection for Academics

A Medieval Padlock, Kathmandu. Courtesy of user Seeteufel, Wikimedia Commons.

Hello All,

I hope this finds you well. I have experienced a few things this week that I think are imperative for all engaged in academic work to understand, be they undergraduates, postgraduates or professors. I think this applies to anyone in knowledge work of any kind, in fact.

What I have to tell you today all stems from the fact that my laptop was stolen on Tuesday. It’s not a very exciting story. Someone saw that nobody was watching (even though there was someone at the table at all times) and snagged it. I had taken some precautions and left some things incomplete, so I thought that I would let you know some things that I thing everyone should do right now if they haven’t already. Seriously, we live on our laptops and data is our life blood. Don’t take any risks:

For your Own Protection, install and use these programs:

  1. Dropbox. It syncs all of your files to the cloud and allows you to restore them to older versions. It has completely saved my life about four times in the face of hardware failure, file corruption and theft. Put all your research files in it and it will keep them synced whenever you change them. Don’t do what some people do and only put some of them in. Put all of them in. Many do this, but everyone should. There are some other alternative programs that are good, but use something like it.
  2. Boxcryptor. It secures files in Dropbox with AES-256 encryption. This stops thieves from just strip mining your hard drive for information. You can make a file inside Dropbox and put your stuff inside it. As long as both programs are running, your data will be encrypted and synced on the fly.
  3. Evernote and Zotero. These are cloud syncing note and citation managers. In addition to being cool and having lots of good features, they will save your files easily and allow you to access them anywhere. You can also sync the local version of non-cloud based programs like OneNote and EndNote to Dropbox.
  4. Prey. This program will track your laptop using wireless access, and can photograph the thief using the webcam. The best idea is to set up a guest account so that the thief can use your laptop but not access anything, and then report it stolen to Prey and watch the fun begin. You can email the information to the Police.

If you have lots of big files, then you could use a program like sugarsync to back up to an external HDD. You can also use Boxcryptor to encrypt it. In fact, it’s wise to do this every few weeks anyway. You could even get fancy and back up whole disk images to restore your computer if the operating system becomes corrupt. All of the programs that I have mentioned are free and work on Macs, Windows devices, iOS devices (iPhones, iPads) and Android devices. The collection of stuff I have mentioned will save you from data loss from computer failure and theft, but also keep your data secure from thieves (even if it’s a cyber criminal who steals your passwords etc).

Your data is your life, so take really good care of it. I know a lot of people out there still gamble with their professional lives by not assiduously protecting their intellectual property. If you do research with a confidential element then I would go as far as to say that you have a duty to do so. I was lucky that thanks to Dropbox, Evernote, Zotero, some encryption, and old favourites like bookmark syncing and gmail, I haven’t lost a thing and all of my most personal data is secured. This email assumes that you aren’t already a pro at this stuff, so if you are then I apologise.

Best Wishes,



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