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Brown HIV researchers make Dropbox secure with nCrypted Cloud

John P. Mello Jr. | May 15, 2014
Consumer tech acceptable for sensitive data with a little help from encryption.

While workers have embraced consumer technology in the workplace with enthusiasm, those technologies have posed pesky problems for organizations that deal with sensitive personal information, especially universities.

That was the case at Brown University where one of its HIV researchers wanted to use Dropbox, an online storage and sharing service with more than 275 million worldwide users, to manage the work of her research team.

Brown's IT department has strict rules governing the kind of data gathered by those HIV researchers. Any information "regulated, restricted, confidential or personally identifiable" must be stored on a system owned and managed by Brown.

Those rules put a crimp in Assistant Professor Caroline Kuo's HIV research in South Africa. Kuo, a Dropbox user, found the service ideal for her project's needs. It stored data on a device as well as in the cloud, which is important when collecting data in the field where Internet connectivity may be non-existent, and synchronized that data seamlessly with the cloud when an Internet connection was available.

Most important, though, Dropbox was easy to use, a characteristic that's been driving adoption of consumer technologies by workers. "A lot of my staff in South Africa are computer illiterate," Kuo explained. "They have to go through basic computer training to even learn how to open a file. Dropbox was really simple for them to understand."

That simplicity is what makes products like Dropbox attractive to users. "What's exciting about the new file sharing tools is that people can gravitate to them quickly and solve an immediate obvious problem: sharing a file with someone else," observed Greg Milliken, marketing vice president for M-Files, maker of an enterprise content management platform.

Dropbox's simplicity contrasted mightily with the solution offered by the university's IT department, a solution really not designed for sharing multiple files through a unified interface. For each filed shared, a secure link had to be created and emailed to whomever you wanted to share the file with. Then the email's recipient had to click on the link and login to the system to obtain the file. Synchronization between a local folder and the Brown cloud was non-existent, and shared files stored on the university's servers were automatically deleted after 30 days.

"It was designed to send one or two files between two people, but what they weren't prepared for was multiple users needing to access shared files and an interface to make that happen," Kuo said.

"It was unwieldy for multiple accounts," she continued. "On on our project, we've got 10 folders and in each folder there are large audio, video and Word files. Having to create a link and email them separately was a nightmare."


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