New technology can help curb academic-certificate fraud

Tuesday December 12 2017

By JOHN WALUBENGO
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The recent revocation of the Meru senator’s academic credentials brings to the fore the issue of academic fraud.

The current method of issuing certificates is so vulnerable that a good number of our current leadership has had to fight off credibility issues, both in and out of court.

Apparently, it is very easy to get a fake academic certificate from any of our suspected milling zones scattered across our major urban centres.

Your budget will determine the level and origin of your certificate. In other words, the purchaser of the fake certificate need not worry about the authenticity of the signatures or paper quality – all that is sorted out by the fraudsters.

The discussion is often about whether you want a PhD, master’s or bachelor’s degree. Additionally, the more prestigious the university you want to claim to have graduated from is, the more you will be required to pay for the fake certificate.

Once equipped with the fake paper, you can apply for prominent jobs, particularly in the public sector, where job security is so high that getting fired at a later stage is more complicated and costly.

Obviously it is more expensive to get rid of a fraudster who is already in employment than to avoid hiring them. More effort therefore needs be invested in preventing the fraudster from getting employed in the first place.

But employers find it time-consuming to authenticate or verify that glimmering certificate from the purported universities for various reasons.

In developed economies, the data protection laws do not allow universities to disclose the private credentials of students to third parties – unless the students expressly and explicitly ask them to make the disclosure.

In Kenya, the issue is more of the huge effort and time needed to investigate and go through piles of manual records in order to confirm if one Professor XYZ or Mister XYZ was actually a student some twenty or thirty years ago.

In most cases, employers’ queries will not be answered promptly, simply because local universities have other more urgent matters to deal with, including student and lecturer demonstrations.

So we must find a way for individual educational qualifications to be stored securely and to be quickly accessed for verification purposes, without compromising the privacy of candidates and individual.

Such a solution has actually been presented by the technology currently powering the bitcon craze — blockchain.

Blockchain technology provides for a decentralised ledger that is globally accessible, immutable, secure and with the support of anonymity.

In other words, universities can record student academic certificates into the global blockchain, allowing graduates to access their credentials from anywhere across the globe and share them with potential employers.

Once shared, the system allows agencies to digitally verify the potential candidate’s purported qualifications. The chances of candidates successfully forging their certificate is zero, since it is the technical equivalence of trying to forge a bitcoin.

The system maintains privacy in that only those you chose to share your credentials with are able to decrypt, view and verify it.

Furthermore, in the unlikely event that your university disappears or goes out of business, your credentials remain alive and permanently inscribed in the global database or ledger for posterity.

MIT and the University of Melbourne are pioneering this approach and Kenya being a leading innovation hub in Africa should seriously consider a similar undertaking in order to curb the endemic academic fraudster problem, once and for all.

Mr Walubengo is a lecturer at Multimedia University of Kenya, Faculty of Computing and IT. Email: [email protected], Twitter: @Jwalu