Industry-Sponsored Research Week
Industry-Sponsored Research Management sample issue

Are your data security precautions for industry partnerships adequate?


By David Schwartz
Published: December 19th, 2017

Protecting the data that moves around during industry-sponsored research projects — among university colleagues, other research institutions and, often, sponsors’ research operations — is critical, more and more so as hackers become a pervasive threat, data volumes expand, sponsored research activity increases and the global scope of collaborative inquiry grows.

The good news, however, is that most universities’ existing information technology infrastructure is probably equipped to handle the data security requirements of most sponsored research projects; if customization isn’t a viable alternative, offsite data management often is.

The risks are real, even when the emphasis isn’t on keeping things secret. “University data is generally intended for open publication,” notes Neil A. Sharkey, vice president for research at The Pennsylvania State University, “so in general, the data we receive from private companies is a bigger security risk.” One big exception is research on human subjects, he emphasizes. “On such projects, our Institutional Review Board will seek assurances that collaborators at other institutions manage the human subjects’ data — for example, personally identifiable information — appropriately.”

Still, he adds, “hackers can pose a threat in a number of instances, such as when university researchers work with personally identifiable information or controlled technical data – or with data prior to securing patent protection.”

At Penn State, as at most schools, the IT infrastructure is sufficient to handle needed security. “We regularly work with confidential information from our industry sponsors,” Sharkey adds, “and the university has protections throughout its IT systems designed to provide the necessary security in managing a company’s confidential information.”

Specific demands from each company can vary, he adds — for example, some require encryption. In fact, he says, “depending on whether the data we are receiving requires a higher level of security or the sponsor has specific requirements, customization is often necessary.” Those customized solutions “also allow greater control over hardware and software,” he comments, “but generally, most of our data security needs can be handled by existing infrastructures.”

There are a number of cloud solutions that “meet the most stringent security requirements,” Sharkey notes, “and we regularly engage IT professionals, within the university and with the sponsor, to identify suitable services based on the needs of the project.”

Addressing data security in sponsored research agreements is often fairly straightforward. “There is boilerplate for Department of Defense-funded research,” Sharkey notes, “much of which is flowed to Penn State through private industry.” And while “there is no boilerplate for industry-sponsored research per se,” he adds, “most of our industry-sponsored projects do not require high levels of data security.” Even in those cases, “we still have standard ways of protecting their data without having to create ad hoc solutions each time.”

One environment that may require extra attention is a multi-university open innovation collaboration.

“Sharing data with colleagues at other institutions carries a bit more risk because we can’t independently verify identities in the same way we can with internal collaborators,” Sharkey points out, “and we can’t independently verify the security measures our colleagues have in place, the training they undergo, or their diligence in being secure.”

A partial solution is the use of “federated identities — in which people log in to our systems with their home identities,” he says. A detailed article on data security in industry partnerships appears in the November issue of Industry-Sponsored Research Management. To subscribe and access the complete article, along with the publication’s entire online archive of best practices and success strategies for attracting and managing corporate partnerships, CLICK HERE.

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