Students Staff
University of Essex

December 5, 2017

Using encryption to keep your data safe

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — sgswaine @ 11:55 am
Keeping data safe

Keeping data safe

Information and cyber security has been a hot topic for several years, and is becoming increasingly relevant as we all move towards a daily life dominated by technology.  Important documents, sensitive research data, financial and purchasing transactions and even private photos are data meant to be kept private – not for the whole world.

Some websites have taken steps to ensure confidentiality by using end-to-end encryption.  Secure webpages begin with https:// and display a padlock net to the URL. So how can you help protect your data?

The UK Data Archive has over 50 years of experience  in handling data and we offer guidance, support and training to anyone who wants to process, store, transmit and share sensitive data. In other words, you are in good hands, so let’s walk you through the basics…

What is Encryption?

Encryption modifies (encodes) digital information using a mathematical formula (algorithm) and a key (password), in such a way that only parties who have the correct key can view the information.  The situation is similar to locking the door to your house – to get into the locked house you need to use the correct key or resort to breaking in. You can encrypt individual files, folders or even entire disks (including USB disks).

Why use Encryption?

Encryption is essential for safeguarding personal and sensitive digital data.  It also helps to demonstrate compliance with the Data Protection Act and upcoming GDPR. Some types of encryption provide greater protection than others, the type and level of encryption used should correspond to the sensitivity of the data being protected eg a personal interview with a participant would be more sensitive than anonymised microdata. As a general rule, more bits equals stronger encryption ie 256-bit encryption is stronger than 128-bit encryption. The encryption key (ie the password strength) is also critical as strong encryption is rendered useless by a key. In addition to securing data, encryption can also be used to verify a sender’s identity and the integrity of the data.

What Encryption software to use?

You should choose your encryption software based on your device, operating system and the sensitivity of the information being protected. Below are some commonly used encryption software:

  • BitLocker – standard on selected editions of Windows; for the encryption of disk volumes and USB devices
  • FileVault2 – standard on Apple Macs; for full disc encryption
  • VeraCrypt – multi-platform encryption software (Windows, Mac and Linux); for full disk and container encryption
  • PGP – Encryption using PGP is very strong and requires a public/private key pair.  The recipient’s public PGP key is used to encrypt files and only the recipients the private key and passphrase can decrypt them.
  • Axcrypt – open source file-level encryption for Windows

The UKDA also have video tutorials on how to use a variety of encryption software programmes to reinforce our training sessions. These are available on our You Tube channel:

What is Ransomware?

Encryption is not always used for good.  A subset of malware called ransomware is used to encrypt user data without permission.  The user then has to pay the attacker to regain access to the data. Earlier this year ‘WannaCry’ ransomware recently brought the NHS to its knees.

Want to learn more?

In collaboration with the Research and Enterprise Office and the Library Services, the UK Data Archive is hosting several training sessions at the beginning of January as together we are launching NEwComERs (Network for Early Career Essex Researchers). These sessions are aimed at Early Career Researchers and PhD students and are designed to help researchers in the various stages of their research – from funding to data curation and publication. You can find out more and get an overview of the whole programme by visiting the NEwComERs website. To book on to any of our courses, please follow the links below (new users will need to register with Proficio before you can book on a course).

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