Losing my memory stick was unforgettably brain-beating

If his late-night photos of the senior common room Christmas party made it into wider circulation, John Brinnamoor would be a dead man

May 17, 2018
usb time bomb
Source: David Parkins

It was a quiet evening in the bucolic foothills of academia. I had just finished updating my lecture for the following morning – checking that the various theories expounded hadn’t been discredited since last term, and that the embedded web links didn’t redirect to sites of a pornographic nature – and uploaded the file to my university’s shiny new content management system.

One last job to do before bed: make a local copy of the file – just in case. So I pulled out my wallet, where I keep the USB data stick that is my constant companion. The impression left in the leather by the lump of memory was visible, but the chip itself was missing. A cold, bowel-loosening sense of loss edged down my spine. For the next hour, I searched every pocket, wallet, floor, drawer and fruit bowl with increasing desperation – before sinking into a chair for a large whisky and some serious thought.

Backtracking over my day, I concluded that I’d last seen the memory stick in the lecture theatre that afternoon. I remembered plugging it in. Surely I’d removed it at the end of the session? Nope. Running the memory frame by frame, I recalled glumly that as I had gone to do so, a student had come up and asked a question about assessment – then, as I was scraping up my paperwork, the next lecturer had started making gestures from outside the door, so I’d panicked and fled. Leaving the USB stick still in the console. Damn.

Maybe, just maybe, it was still there – calmly waiting, with dog-like devotion, for its luckless owner to return. I checked the time and realised that the building would now be locked and the alarms set. My hope lay in an early start, getting into the lecture theatre before the first timetabled session. I finished the whisky, rejected the thought of another with deep regret, and went to bed.

In the dark, the demons came. As I stared sleeplessly at the ceiling, I became increasingly anxious as I asked myself what files could be on the memory stick. At first, I stuck with the story that I wanted to believe: that I only ever kept copies of my lecture slides on it. That was why I carried the thing, after all.

Slowly, the painful realisation came that – over time – other stuff might have crept on to it almost by osmosis. First, there were the holiday photos I’d taken to get printed. Nothing too salacious there: only a bit of light drinking and some tasteful landscapes. Hang on a moment, though – what about the late-night pics of the senior common room Christmas party? Surely I’m not that stupid? I vaguely remembered that folk had asked me for prints – but what if someone found those photos on the stick and circulated them around the campus? I concluded that I’d be a dead man if that happened.

What else could be on there? In sweaty, furious haste, I fumbled over the options. Possibly, just possibly, I’d scanned a copy of my passport on to the stick as a “just in case” before my last trip to the US. Oh well: some mild identity theft would be my own stupid fault. At least it wouldn’t hurt anyone else.

But – oh shit – what about the class assignments? Eighty sets of student reports, each carrying personal information and material that students had every right to expect would be kept confidential. I knew I’d copied the collection on to a memory stick to move it from desktop to laptop – but which one?  And…and…hadn’t there also been a draft of an exam paper? Damn. Damn. Damn.

As the clock flipped over to 5am, I could clearly foresee my career in ruins, a massive class action lawsuit by my students and the prospect of my former best friends being lewdly featured in the dodgier tabloids. By 6am, I was convinced that all these outcomes were not only possible, but inevitable.

At 7am, I startled Sid the porter by being outside the building when he unlocked. The lecture theatre was in darkness, and I’d already made it to the lectern by the time the lights started to come up. Nothing. All the USB ports were empty. I searched the desktop, the shelves underneath, the carpet and even the fetid fluff-haunted recess under the console. Still nothing.

In deep despair, I trudged over to my office – further alarming the cleaner – and zoned out in front of my email. I must have nodded off because when the incoming message pinged, it was already after nine. Had I, our departmental administrator was politely asking, mislaid anything? Because, if so, she had it in her safekeeping.

Sealed in an envelope and locked in the drawer of her desk lay the small but potentially explosive USB stick. After thanking her profusely and apologising for the extra trouble I’d given her, I stumbled back to my PC.

Nervous fingers slid the stick into the USB port. After a painful interval, the file manager opened to reveal…six sets of lecture notes. Nothing else. No personal data. No exam papers. No assignments. And – gods be praised – no dodgy photos.

Call me paranoid if you like, but I’ve learned my lesson. If I absolutely have to carry important files around, they will be password-protected and the media holding them firmly encrypted. With the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation just around the corner, and potential penalties for organisations of up to €20 million (£17.5 million) or 4 per cent of annual turnover – whichever is higher – you know it makes sense.

John Brinnamoor is a pseudonymous academic working at a UK university.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: In a flash, I saw ruin

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