You are here

Encrypt your research data

 

March 20, 2020 update: While the physical SFU Libraries are temporarily closed due to COVID-19 measures, we are happy to continue to support you with any research data management questions remotely. Please feel free to contact us by email at data-services@sfu.ca during this time, and we can set up a meeting via video conferencing or telephone.

 

Research data is vulnerable to unauthorized access, introducing significant threats to research privacy and confidentiality.

One way to protect the privacy and integrity of your research data is by using data encryption strategies.

Why use encryption with research data?

Keeping research data safe and secure, particularly if it contains confidential information, is a vital part of research data management. Encryption is an effective strategy for preventing unwanted users viewing your data.

In general, encryption means that files are saved in a "scrambled" state and are only readable to users with the correct password and/or credentials.

With more powerful computers and sophisticated encryption software solutions, comprehensive file encryption can be much more easily integrated into almost any research workflow.

Encrypting data files on local devices

If a physical copy of research data (such as that found on a laptop or external drive) is lost or stolen, encryption can help prevent unauthorized access to this data by a third party.

Windows computers
Windows computers have an encryption feature called BitLocker Drive Encryption which you can enable from their Settings menu.

Mac computers
For Mac OS users FileVault can be used to encrypt your startup disk, and this is normally enabled by default on new machines.

Either of these will accomplish the same goal of ensuring that your files cannot be read by anyone other than by you logging into your own computer.

USB drives and mobile phones
You can also apply encryption to removable USB drives, though this will generally limit them from being used on other platforms, so use caution here. iPhones also use FileVault by default.

Encrypting data transfers

Most forms of data transfer, such as email, do not include encryption at all times and can therefore be accessed by anyone who might intercept the transmission, e.g. on an unsecured wireless network.

Increasingly many messaging apps advertise some form of end-to-end encryption, but many can still be datamined for your metadata or require both parties to enable an encryption feature which is difficult to enforce for all of your contacts.

An easy-to-use exception to this is the open-source messaging app Signal, which is available on iPhone or Android and can be synchronized to send and receive messages from your computer.

Additional resources

Data encryption - UK Data Service
Overview of the benefits of encryption for research data management, along with extensive encryption software recommendations.