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Protecting Your Lab & Your Data

At Northwestern University, research is being conducted everyday at the many scientific laboratory environments on campus. Data-producing experiments generate datasets that live on the many computers connected to instruments and lab equipment. Is that data safe in the lab? What should lab managers be considering when setting up their lab environments?

What computer systems am I running?

Lab managers should be aware of what operating systems their lab computers are running, and ensure that they have all of the proper security updates. This may mean running Microsoft or Mac OS updates on a regular basis, or updating packages on Linux systems. If possible, running anti-virus software (such as Symantec AV) should also be done to mitigate any possible infections. Finally, if you are running unsupported versions of an operating system – Windows XP, for example – you should not connect these systems to the internet. This is because these systems are no longer receiving security updates from Microsoft.

Who can see my data?

If a lab computer has access to the internet, it is possible that both inbound and outbound connections can be made to these systems, especially if the system is infected by a virus. If data is saved on those systems on a local hard drive, it can be made accessible to the outside world.

A best practice to consider is saving your data in one of the services that the University supports – Box, Research Data Storage Service (RDSS), or cloud data storage providers like Amazon Web Services or Google Cloud are some of the many options to save your data safely and securely. Researchers with sensitive data should consider encrypting data in the cloud, or using RDSS or Northwestern Box.

Another option to consider is putting your lab environment behind a virtual firewall – essentially making your own private network, shielded from access while outside your lab. This allows for secure access for saving data to a supported service, but does not allow inbound or outbound connections to your computer systems. This is also the recommendation for any unsupported operating systems that should not be connected to the internet. If you do need to open access to a lab computer – i.e. for support by a vendor – the network team at NUIT can assist with allowing an outbound connection on a specific port.

If accessing Northwestern systems from off campus, use Northwestern’s Virtual Private Network, or VPN, to securely connect and transfer data.

This all sounds a bit complicated. Can I get some help?

There are many resources available to help you navigate the best way to setup and manage your lab information technology needs.

Research Data Services provides hourly Lab IT Support services that can be purchased by contract or by the hour.

The Northwestern University Knowledge Base is searchable by IT-related topic.

Research Data Storage service information is available, along with how to purchase.

If you’d like to setup a consultation to discuss specifics, email to get help from the team!

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