Tag Archives: practice

Securing research data through encryption and related issues

I am occasionally asked what all the encryption stuff on my Contact/PGP page is about.  For some time I have been meaning to write about the importance of data encryption for researchers, but it is quite a daunting task to write a thorough blog post on such a topic.

Thankfully, someone else has done this!  A colleague gave me a link to a blog posting by Jonatan Kurzwelly that covers questions of email and file encryption and much more, and I would strongly echo all of the points here:

Encrypting Ethnography: Digital Security for Researchers

I first encountered the issue of encryption in the mid-1990s, when working as a lobbyist for the UK churches on issues related to Israel/Palestine, Iraq and Sudan.  Email was just beginning to be used in academic circles, but was not yet something that the UK churches used much.  In fact, although I was based at the Church of Scotland offices, I was given an email address through the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for African Studies to help with the work on Sudan.  Several of the informants for my human rights work in Sudan had access to email because they were attached to the university in Khartoum, and very quickly it became necessary to find secure ways to communicate if my informants were to stay safe.  This soon also became an option used by Iraqi informants.

I was therefore one of the early users of Phil Zimmermann’s Pretty Good Privacy software, also known as PGP – in those days it was all command-line stuff in DOS and pretty complicated for a non-cryptographic specialist like me.  However, none of my informants were endangered, and we were able to do some important work, lobbying in the Westminster parliament for the rights of disadvantaged people in these countries.  I have continued to use PGP over the years as it has become simpler to use, and now it is available in easily accessible form through GPGTools etc.

GPG Keychain Access App

I strongly encourage the use of GPGTools and all the other myriad security methods outlined in Kurzwelly’s blog posting.  As the recent leaks by Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and others have shown, data is not secure unless you make it secure.  You need to begin with the premise that ALL email and communications are being read (because they are, even if just by a machine) – and then the need for secure communications becomes immediately apparent.  Data stored on servers etc. is also insecure, as Kurzwelly’s blog posting makes clear. Researchers are not exempt from this – particularly if their sources may be putting themselves in danger through what they reveal.  No research outcome is worth putting other people at risk.

So that is what the PGP key data on my Contact/PGP page is about.

Secure your data!

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Make your email work for you…

… rather than have you work for your email.

Many of us will have encountered the problem of email taking over: I can receive several hundred emails a day at times.  These come from a variety of sources:

  • students
  • immediate colleagues
  • useful administration (related directly to my work, usually in teaching)
  • other academics from beyond my institution
  • useless administration (the endless nonsense from central university services that all academics have to endure)
  • mailing lists
  • other

It is a struggle to deal with this volume of email, especially since much of it is not urgent.  Even if someone marks it as ‘urgent’ (as some university admin people like to do to everything they send), it is only urgent to them – and only rarely to me!  I used to wade through them all, file some away, respond to others immediately, but somehow still ended up with hundreds waiting to be dealt with in some way in my inbox.  J.P.E. Harper-Scott, a musicologist at Royal Holloway, has described a system to manage this volume of academic email, and at this juncture, you need to go and read his posting (click that link now: it’ll open in a new window/tab so you can easily come back to this page; don’t worry, I’ll wait for you…).

I wanted to add something to his system, because I do use it, but slightly differently.  I am an ‘early adopter’ of email, and I have most important emails I have ever sent or received going back almost two decades (yes, I have good backup routines – that’s a topic for another day).  I do use IMAP, but not to keep my email on a server.  There are various reasons for this that I won’t go into here, but if you do the same, or – like me – don’t want to use GoogleMail, the instructions below may help you.  My version of Harper-Scott’s system is slightly more cumbersome and has one notable disadvantage: because to-be-sent emails are connected to your email program, they will only be sent at pre-arranged times if your computer is on and your email program is running; if it is off, they will send when you next start your email program.  This is not a problem for me – if it is not for you, keep reading.

My instructions are oriented around using a Mac – if you still use a Windows computer, it is probably much the same.

Your email client program

Firstly: you need a better email program than Apple’s Mail.  A key function of Harper-Scott’s system is timing the sending of emails in advance, whether in the morning, or in the afternoon.  Apple’s Mail is functional but basic – and can’t do that (at least, not without resorting to Automator, which loses some Mail functionality and is clunky beyond anything you want to put up with; I’ve tried it, believe me on this).  There are two mainstream options for you that I am aware of: one is Microsoft’s email client, and the other is Thunderbird.  I try to have as little Microsoft software on my computer as possible, so the former is out of the question for me, but Thunderbird is a great piece of software.  Either will work.

Harper-Scott does not sort emails, relying instead on search facilities.  I can’t quite let go of filing my emails, but I have minimised doing so, recognising that email client searches have improved enormously from my early days when filing was essential or nothing would ever be found again.  My main filing system of ‘dealt with and just need to keep’ emails (and that obviously includes almost all emails I’ve sent) is organised by year, so this year’s folder looks like this:

2013
– Stirling (ALL my university emails)
– Einzelpersonen (ALL emails to or from non-Stirling individuals)
– Organisationen (ALL emails to or from non-Stirling organisations)

Yeah, I know, German – quirky, huh?  When you have nearly 20 years of emails and the main folders have always had German names, you just stick with it…

Then I have a few other temporary subfolders in the Inbox (yes, these have English names…!) that I’ll describe below.  Some of these are automatically filled, and others are manually dealt with:

Inbox
– internal
– Programme Director
– students
– print then file
– responses coming
– memos to read sometime

And this is how I use them: Thunderbird has simple to use filters that I have set to automatically move student email into the ‘students’ folder, and all other Stirling emails into the ‘internal’ folder (easy to do: undergraduate student addresses are in a uniform format so a filter for @students.stir.ac.uk catches them all; another similar filter deals with @stir.ac.uk which covers everyone else at the university).  My actual inbox now contains only emails from outside the university – so as soon as I download my emails, they are automatically sorted into three main categories, making it easier to deal with them.  Thunderbird helpfully marks folders with unread emails in two ways, in bold, and with the number of unread emails, for example:

Inbox (3)
– internal (12)
– Programme Director
– students (6)

I can now deal with these emails following Harper-Scott’s scheme.

But what is the Programme Director folder?  This concerns emails that come to me in my administrative role as Religion Programme Director.  I move ‘to-do’ emails in there and mark them as unread so that the folder name is bold and has a number.  These are things that I know I need to come back to very shortly.  If I think I will forget, I set myself an iCal reminder.

The other folders:

  • print then file: I can’t print long documents at home, but if a PhD student sends me her latest chapters for comments, or I receive papers for a meeting, I need to print these.  I put the email in here, and when I’m next in the office, I save and print the attachment, remove it from the email, and then file the email away.
  • responses coming: often these will be emails I have sent to someone and for which I need their response.  This is my reminder folder – if need be, I forward the email again.  Once the query has been dealt with – or the question is no longer relevant! 🙂 – the email is filed away in the relevant 2013 folder.
  • memos to read sometime: this is as inspiring as it sounds – these are mostly the tedious memos that go round the entire university dealing with subjects that I know are totally irrelevant to me, but that I feel I should read.  Sometime.  When I have a moment.  Just now I have a couple in there from September 2012: maybe I can get away with not reading them at all – after all, the world hasn’t stopped just because I haven’t read yet another amendment to regulation 18.24.3.7, has it?  Before you even start tutting: I am very aware that this folder’s sole purpose is to assuage guilt.  I know I should read these terribly important emails because many of them come from people who see themselves as terribly important (coincidentally, they’re often people at the top of the university hierarchy), but eventually any residual guilt is gone and I can file them away unread.  And the world tends to keep turning despite my dilatory approach to these emails…

Sending email at specified times

One of Harper-Scott’s key points concerns sending emails at specific times in the future.  I am convinced that this is absolutely essential if you want to keep control of your email and not let it control you.  Since adopting his system at the beginning of January I think I have sent two work emails (that concerned urgent pastoral matters for a student) outside the hours of 9-17h Monday-Friday, though I do, of course, write quite a number in the evenings and at the weekends.  As he points out, keeping to a standard working day is not just important for you, it is a moral issue in relation to your colleagues and students.  Read his post again if you need convincing of this (it’s ok, I’ll still be here when you’re finished…).

As I understand it, Microsoft email clients have a ‘send later’ function that you can use for this.  The default Thunderbird ‘Send Later’ function is not as fully featured – it’s a leftover from days when we had dial-up modems and lets you write emails that are then sent as soon as you go back online.  That’s obviously no use for delaying emails when most of us have broadband that is on all the time.  But… one of the glories of Thunderbird is that you can easily install plug-ins to do all kinds of things, and there is a clever one with the imaginative name ‘Send Later‘.  This allows you to specify exactly when an email should be sent, and it then stores it in your ‘drafts’ folder, ready to go.  You can customise the ‘Write:’ new message toolbar with the relevant buttons (right click the toolbar if you haven’t done this before, and a menu will open – only American format dates, but time is 24h!).  Mine now looks like this:

Thunderbird Send Later menu

Thunderbird Send Later menu

And that email will now go at 9:00 tomorrow morning – simple…  At the moment I have 24 emails in my drafts folder ready to go tomorrow morning, and one ready to go on 28. February concerning a document I was asked to complete and return – by 28. February.

Mobile telephones

One of my pre-reform email practices was to check and respond to emails in bed before getting up.  I also did this at night when about to go to sleep.  In bed!  My day bookended by email.  This is MADNESS.  But I know many others who do this, so it is a collective madness.  I would do this on my mobile telephone, and write replies to students and colleagues.  Who did I think would benefit from getting my thoughts on any subject at 6:30 in the morning, or at 23:50 at night?!  So I’ve stopped being so stupid, and now my telephone only has my work email turned on if I am away and need to use it to respond to email during the day.  If you have an iphone or ipad etc., it is very easy to turn your email on and off, and no settings or emails are lost.  This is how you do it: in the Settings menu, select Mail, Contacts, Calendars, and then select your work email.  Then turn it off (go on, you can do it!):

Work email off!

Work email off!

Doesn’t that feel good?  And if you have more than one work email (for example, I also co-manage an email account for a project we run in our department), do it for all of them, so that your main email settings screen looks like this:

ALL work email off!

ALL work email off!

Did you notice the time at the top of the screen?  It’s Sunday evening, so I don’t want to see my work email!  You’ll see that I’ve still left my personal email on – if my friends want to invite me to the cinema, I want to know about that.

I also have a basic folder system in operation on the IMAP server just for my mobile.  There are four folders:

– Stirling
– Einzelpersonen
– Organisationen
– to-do

Anything that can be filed away into one of my three archive folders is filed away, and every now and then I will copy these to my main computer.  The ‘to-do’ folder contains emails that I want out of my inbox because I’ve read them, but responding to them can wait until I get back to my main computer.

I hope this helps liberate you from your email, and allows you to use your email, rather than be beholden to it.  Comments on how you find this system, or alternative implementations, are welcome.

Finally, if you want a stimulating read, I’m about half-way through Harper-Scott’s newest book, and I can highly recommend it!

End the hypocrisy! A new academic blog

I have been a terrible hypocrite, and I want that to change.

I am actively involved in two main blogs: one, my personal blog that is mostly about photography and is based on my main website, and the other a joint blog for the Critical Religion Association (I am one of the writers and currently edit the blog).  And yet: despite encouraging (and to some extent demanding) that my research students write a self-reflective blog about their research, I have not done so myself!  So that is what this is going to be – and I will no longer feel such a hypocrite.

At the moment, I expect there to be two kinds of posting:

  1. ongoing reflections about my research, including occasional notes about books and articles I have read;
  2. practical notes about surviving in Higher Education in Scotland/the UK.

My first posting will almost certainly be something about reclaiming email, which sounds tedious, but is very important.  I’ll also write something before too long about the book I’m currently (trying) to write, which might be more stimulating.

I am aware that my schedule will almost certainly mean very irregular posting, but self-reflective writing is important, and it may be that others will be interested in some of my reflections.