We had an email yesterday from the IT department with new instructions about the use of university computers (especially laptops) outside the university.
Following concerns raised in various American universities reported in the New York Times we have been reminded about the possibility that sensitive research work, especially anything that might lead to patents or other valuable intellectual property, might be the target for hackers. Security against hackers has been tightened for the university network, we were told, but computers connected to the Internet off campus might be vulnerable.
The IT department said that they were following the advice issued by some American universities. Anybody visiting China to present a research conference paper should not take their own laptop with them since as soon as they were connected to the Internet everything would be copied, or some malicious code would be placed on the machine so that when it is brought back to the UK and connected to the network access to all the files on it will be achieved.
Academics visiting China should borrow a specially prepared laptop from the IT department and place only pdf files of their paper or presentation on it. On their return to the UK computer users should take this laptop back to the IT department for analysis and assessment.
Temporary email accounts would be provided to enable people to maintain contact while in China, so they should not use their usual university of gmail accounts. They should also borrow a university mobile phone rather than their own cell phone as these might also be hacked. On no account should they use Facebook or Twitter while in China.
This is probably not going to affect me as I don't expect to visit China in the near future and I don't really have any research projects that have potential IP spinoffs. But it will affect people elsewhere in the university, particularly in the science, engineering and creative industry faculties.
What with the NSA and GCHQ getting hold of our metadata and hackers trying to access our files the digital world has suddenly been found to be a much more difficult place to inhabit than we had thought.