MLA 2019: Commonsense Information Security for Academics

Slides from the 2019 MLA Convention Session. A version of these recommendations has since been published in Profession as “Information Security for Academics: Small Steps to Safeguard Your Data,” by Beth Seltzer and Tom Lewek.

Information Security for Academics: Small Steps to Safeguard Your Data

We initially planned this session for MLA 2018 (see our original post), but we unfortunately had to cancel the session due to snow. We still think this is an important topic–indeed, securing our data seems even more urgent in late 2018–so we decided to hold the session at the MLA 2019. The updated description is below.


The CIT is sponsoring an informal workshop during MLA 2019 to help individuals secure their academic and personal data from malicious individuals, businesses, and government. During the workshop, CIT members work with attendees to implement basic, legal cybersecurity. Bring any laptops, phones, tablets, or other devices whose data you want to secure. Follow along on Twitter at #mla19 #s180.

Session 180, Friday, 4 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., Hyatt Regency – Michigan 1C
Speakers: Shawna Ross, Texas A&M U; Beth Seltzer, Bryn Mawr C

Much of the information of our academic lives—from research notes, article and book drafts, and scholarly communications to students’ grades, emails, and assignments—exists in digital form. As our professional information travels through different devices, clouds, and servers, our our work becomes vulnerable to discovery and exploitation. This is why a tangle of requirements and policies for keeping information private have developed, not just at the federal level (i.e., mandatory FERPA compliance), but also in an institional level, where many faculty must undergo periodic information privacy training. Although these ever-expanding lists of demands, laws, and policies can seem bewildering, this session is intended to be a fun and low-stakes introduction to protecting your information. Even though you may not think you are the kind of person who needs to protect your information, we believe that everyone who uses digital devices to perform their professional academic obligations has a responsibility to implement very basic, simple, and free practices of information security.

This workshop is therefore designed to help attendees protect their professional data by setting up basic encryption for their electronic devices, learning how to browse the internet securely, and generating strong passwords. During this informal, community-based social workshop, we can show you how to take a proactive approach to security. First, we will explain what encryption is, how it works, and why understanding it is central to keeping yourself safe online today. The event is for academics, by academics, and is designed for everyone. If you can sign into email, send a text message, or use a search engine like Google, you are equipped to secure your privacy online.

Next, we will open up the session to respond to the audience members’ particular questions and concerns, so be ready to share any issues you would like to address. Topics will likely include: two-factor authentication, browsers, passwords,  search engines, encrypting your laptop, and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Participants will be encouraged to bring their laptops, phones, tablets, palm pilots, or any other device to learn to secure their digital information. Resources and guides we will be drawing on include Quincy Larson’s “How to encrypt your entire life in less than an hour,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s “Surveillance Self-Defense,” and the “CryptoParty Handbook.”