Academic journal article College and University

Verification of the Integrity and Legitimacy of Academic Credential Documents in an International Setting

Academic journal article College and University

Verification of the Integrity and Legitimacy of Academic Credential Documents in an International Setting

Article excerpt

The global demand for higher education currendy exceeds the world's existing university capacity. This shortfall is likely to persist for the foreseeable future, raising concerns that frustrated students might choose to purchase fraudulent credentials from counterfeiters or diploma mills. International efforts to encourage the development of reliable, authoritative lists of recognized universities are currendy underway. An employer might use such lists and related databases to determine the legitimacy of a school attended by a prospective employee. But an additional approach to credential authentication is possible in which degree verification is performed automatically using the same information security tools that permit secure financial transactions to proceed over open communication networks. It is possible that the development of reliable databases (which require active engagement in order to be useful) in combination with a widely adopted standard for self-authenticating academic documents could drive nearly all counterfeiters and diploma mills out of business.

Public-key cryptography can provide a technical solution to the problem of authenticating academic documents such as transcripts and diplomas. When combined with an appropriate system to manage universities' public keys (so that only legitimate universities are issued keys by a "certificate authority"), it becomes possible to determine whether a document is genuine or counterfeit, and also whether or not it was issued by a legitimate postsecondary institution rather than a diploma mill.

Interesting lessons can be learned from the history of efforts to suppress fraud in financial transactions. After discussing these, I describe a model for the generation of secure, verifiable diplomas and transcripts.


In i860, at the beginning of the United States' Civil War, the manufacture of American currency was managed separately by each state in the Union. Because there was no national coordination of the design of coins and bills, it was difficult for a bank in one state to recognize as illegitimate counterfeit bills that purported to be the legal currency of a different state (nara 1998). It is estimated that one-third to one-half of the currency in circulation in the United States at the time was counterfeit (us s s 2009).

Suppression of Counterfeit Currency

On the last day of his life, President Abraham Lincoln ordered Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch to address this problem. Mc Cullo eh created the United States Secret Service in response to the President's charge (usss 2009). Though better known now for its mission protecting government officials and foreign diplomats, the Secret Service, for the remainder of the nineteenth century, had currency fraud as its primary focus. The Service moved aggressively against the producers of counterfeit money, closing hundreds of production sites in only a few years and eventually reducing the fraction of U.S. currency in circulation that was counterfeit to well under one-tenth of one percent.

The availability of intaglio process currency printing presses (in spite of international controls meant to keep these out of the hands of counterfeiters), in combination with modern technology, has given rise to new lines of counterfeit notes that are nearly undetectable as fakes. The provenance of these "super notes" is not entirely clear, although the United States Treasury has stated that such notes are believed to be of North Korean origin (Mihm 20 06). Thus, some of the concerns this raises are international and inherendy political in scope. According to a North Korean defector, "Kim Jong I endorsed counterfeiting not only as a way of paying for covert operations but also as a means of waging economic warfare against the United States, 'a way to fight America, and screw up the American economic system'" (Mihm 2006).

We expect that the use of counterfeit bills of one country's currency inside another country is a smaller problem than the use of counterfeits within the purported country of origin of the currency. …

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