Protecting Informants in a Time of Digital Thievery

The NY Times has an article about how corporate executives and government officials leave their laptops behind when they go to China or Russia, for fear that corporate or government secrets might be compromised by advanced spyware.

it has become easier to steal information remotely because of the Internet, the proliferation of smartphones and the inclination of employees to plug their personal devices into workplace networks and cart proprietary information around. Hackers’ preferred modus operandi, security experts say, is to break into employees’ portable devices and leapfrog into employers’ networks — stealing secrets while leaving nary a trace.

I mention this because it is also a serious concern for anthropologists I know who do research in China. We here on Savage Minds have written a lot about using digital tools for research, but it is also worth thinking about the vulnerabilities such tools create for one’s informants. There are a lot of tools one can use to encrypt data, but they are useless if some Lisbeth Salander has already hacked into your computer and stolen the password. How paranoid should we be? What steps can we take to protect our digital data? Please use this as an open thread to discuss these issues.

3 thoughts on “Protecting Informants in a Time of Digital Thievery

  1. I’d be interested in hearing more about anthropologists in China being concerned about data protection. Perhaps I’m just being naive, but I always assumed that studying something relatively politically innocuous would preclude me from being the target of any sort of surveillance. Are these people looking at politically sensitive topics? Are there concrete reasons to be concerned about data theft, or just the general atmosphere of mild paranoia that’s appropriate for living in China?

  2. What constitutes a “politically innocuous” research subject in China? And if you are a foreign researcher, might not anything you do be of interest to the state? Nor should China alone be the subject of scrutiny here, note that the TSA in America feels it has the right to search your laptop at the boarder. And I’ve had colleagues in the US who had to go to court to keep confidential research notes private.

  3. I’m glad you point out that China is not the only problem here. Warrantless searches of computers when coming into the US are quite common and even though the consequences might not be as severe, researchers in my opinion have the responsibility to protect their informants’ data. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a helpful guide for protecting your data at the border.

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