Where to keep all those exam questions?

Twice a year we have to set exams, and that’s when I re-examine my security measures. This means no Auto-login (password always required upon startup), the mac is set to sleep in 15 minutes and a password is required to wake from sleep or the screen-saver (System preferences> Security). This is practically symbolic since students have no access to my computer and the mac is never left unattended behind unlocked doors.

If I am away even for seconds, my door is locked. It’s something we have had to practise since the late 90’s when many labs in the department were hit by a spate of thefts; you see, in the old days, every door was unlocked!

The mac is not turned on overnight. If I am called away I have no worries; an automatic shut down is executed every evening (System preferences> Energy Saver> Schedule). I do have to ensure my open documents are all saved before leaving since a shut down can be cancelled by a dialog box querying the absent user if he wishes to save or discard his unsaved document!

Since OS X 10.3, Mac users have had the use of FIleVault which provides encryption for the entire home folder. File Vault may prevents backup by Leopard’s Time Machine when logged in, so if I switch from SuperDuper to TimeMachine, I’ll sort that out.

I don’t leave sensitive material on my laptop, even though no one is allowed to use it. Staff members don’t exchange sensitive information via email, even encrypted files – although the real truth may be simply that many are clueless about these options! Instead of passing around soft copies, I use hard copy for exam originals and these are never left unattended or in full view.

When frequent access to exam files are necessary during the question setting and review process, I encrypt the specific folder using OS X’s Disk Utility. You can create an encrypted disk image in which to store files; it’s lovely! This excellent option is explained very clearly in this Flickr photoset by Derek K. Miller.


You can also encrypt the final version of your documents as pdfs for Preview provides this option in the “save as” dialogue box.

Midnight break-ins are ruled out by camera surveillance and probably more importantly by the ever-present graduate student researchers, many of whom stay overnight. Since the biodiversity group occupies just two floors, strange faces stand out.

Its not that I worry about my students ever attempting to peek into my computer, they are an honest bunch. But I have a responsibility to to ensure they are well protected from any possibility of suspicion, if ever a breach in security occurs. Exercising good security means thinking about possible scenarios and plugging the loopholes early. And then reminding yourself about it every six months!