Macs, repairs and fieldwork ethics

posted 24 Jan 2014 15:35 by Simon McKerrell   [ updated 24 Jan 2014 15:36 ]

An interesting point of ethical ethnographic procedure for me recently.

I had to put my macbook in to the apple shop for a minor repair. Clearly (and having looked online at a few posts about privacy and repairs) there was a risk that a) one could lose all the files on the computer, and, b) that unknown characters could have access to sensitive information such as digital sound files and video files from ethnography.
What to do?
Clearly in this digital age, there are a few ethical basics which I have followed out of sheer common sense. Such as for instance, not using any of the cloud services (Google Drive, Dropbox or iCloud) to host any sound recordings or video ethnography files. I’m pretty sure that my interviews on Scottish music and ethnography of hearing etc., would not be of the slightest interest to would-be hackers, however there are quite a few recordings with extremely personal tales, or individual participants in my fieldwork who have made it clear that certain stories they have related should not be made public. When we go out to do ethnographic recordings, we make a commitment to our participants that we will treat their words and thoughts (and music) ethically, and part of that means holding on to the files securely. Given that I know have accumulated many many Gigabytes of fieldwork recordings, interviews and ethnographic videos over the years, I decided I needed to delete these files in case my computer was taken away for several days or weeks for repair.
For anyone who is interested this involved: a) making a complete backup (in my case with time machine, and various other DVDs burnt with complete video files etc. b) overwriting the deleted space with disk utility, and then, for non-sensitive but personal files of mine, that are hosted on the computer and cloud services; disconnecting Google drive and dropbox accounts from the computer so that once deleted the folders on the computer, it didn’t trigger a delete of the same files from my online storage.
Now, all my ethnographic recordings are safely double backed up on external hard drive and also burned onto rewritable DVDs. I’d be interested in hearing any other tips on healthy and ethical digital management of ethnographic material from anyone out there–please leave a comment below or get in touch. I do now include in my consent forms that specifically states that there is the potential for my fieldwork recordings to be deposited at an archive in the future and if there are objections to make that clear at the point of discussing the ethics and consent form before the interview–I wonder how many of us actually do deposit to say the National Library, or the British Library–I’m not aware of any standard practice on this, and the digital nature of fieldwork files now could make this a tricky issue…

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