The simplest of solutions may be the best

I have made it a habit to routinely scan the feed of the business social medium platform, Linkedin for updates, news and sharing of articles etc. from my 500+ contacts. It is amazing what you can learn from your Linkedin contacts these days. One of the many learned friends from Linkedin platform who has consistently sharing great articles is Jason Schrott, CEO of Gateway Education USA. I picked up lots of updates, reviews and news about higher education, especially in relation to higher education sector in Asia by simply reading what Jason has shared! It is therefore not surprising that this article was inspired by Jason’s latest post about Greek universities using blockchain technology (aka the technology that drives the now almost ubiquitous cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin) in order to secure the authenticity of college testamurs.

A novel way to use blockchain technology

The Greek universities, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Democritus University of Thrace and Athens University of Economics and Business embark on this open source pilot project using blockchain platform in order to provide a transparent system for their graduates to proof the authenticity of their academic credentials electronically and securely. The article also mentioned that with the use of this technology, not only will the authenticity of the testamurs issued by these three universities be secured, prospective employers and just about anyone wishing to authenticate the academic credential of graduates of these universities can do so electronically and thus will no longer need to contact the respective universities for assistance, saving time and resources.

During my stint helming a university college from 2015 to 2017, I faced precisely the same problem of how to secure the authenticity of the testamurs issued to graduates from fraudulent usage. We received almost two to three enquiries per month from prospective employers and companies doing background verification of candidates for employment. Without a good and foolproof system of systematically checking and verifying academic credentials issued by my institution, the very reputation of not only the institution but that of all the alumni and current students would be in jeopardy.

Microdot printing is great but expensive & not easily available

I remember learning from a former colleague who ran a high-tech printing firm about the magic of microdot printing technology whereby authentication codes etc. can be easily hidden among the letters and symbols etc. that are usually printed on a document. However, after two weeks of relentless, but fruitless search for a vendor with this technology (and I was subsequently advised by the same ex-colleague of the high cost of the security feature), I had decided to abandon this technology all together.

A tried-and-tested “offline” method

It was around January – February, in early 2015 that I suddenly remembered what I had to do in order to officially graduate from my alma mater, Queen’s University of Belfast. I have a better memory of this process than most people as I happened to have to go through the same process three times during my eight and a half years of studies at Queen’s, for my Bachelor, Master’s and PhD degrees! The process was simple, a graduand will only be recognized as a graduate if he/she register his/her academic attainment at the Registry of Queen’s. All graduands are obliged to seek out the services of the Registrar (or his/her authorized deputy) who will verify and authenticate a graduand’s academic records and attainment before allowing this graduand to sign on a big book (two feet by one foot in size) which serves as the roll of graduates. The entry will only be valid if the signing by the graduand is witnessed by the Registrar who will countersign on the relevant space. Thus a graduand will be deemed to have graduated if she/he has completed her/his entry into the roll of graduates successfully. And it is this roll of graduates which is the definitive proof of one’s graduate status. Hence this process is totally “offline” and will not be subjected to “hacking” as the roll of graduates is kept securely by the Registry.

Needless to say, I emulated my alma mater’s process and only spending a few hundred ringgit to “custom-make” a few volumes of the “big book” (my version was a bit more modest in size, about 1.5 feet by about 1 foot). Although this created a tried and tested system of using a physical roll of graduates, it still did not solve the problem of how to ensure the authenticity of our academic testamurs issued to graduates. Without the use of microdot printing technology, fraudsters can still reproduce almost identical testamurs or if blank testamurs fall into the wrong hand, it would be like giving away an “open cheque”! Thus, I had to ponder how I could solve this problem without spending a lot of money which would not endear myself to the Board of Directors!

Finding the “hidden Mickey” – that’s the key!

When my children were growing up, they liked to watch Disney cartoons on TV. I remember one of their favourites was a cartoon that had a very participatory feature called “spot the hidden Mickey” where viewers are given scenes from different cartoons and their job was to spot any sign of the classic Mickey Mouse’s head, symbols etc. “Why don’t I put in a “hidden Mickey” in a different spot for each year’s testamurs?”, I told myself.

Thus I quickly talked this over with the lecturer who produced all the artwork for the institution and we decided to “hide” a hidden message within the watermark of the testamur’s design. We would change the “hidden message” every year and “hide” this in different spot thereby replicating the key security functions of the microdot technology. However, this is still not fully secured as anyone who has stolen a “blank” testamur of the relevant year can still defeat our security feature.

Employing the embossing method with a unique seal

The final security feature was in fact, the simplest. All testamurs have to be embossed by a seal of the institution, that is the ‘standard practice” in all institutions. This embossing is usually done on a big circular shape on the testamur itself. However, anyone with the “right” determination can spend RM200 to “clone” our seal. Thus I needed something more. I went on to seek the help of an expert in Chinese calligraphy, none other than the head of my institution’s School of Chinese Studies, to create a text of the institution’s name in Chinese using a font that is not easily emulated. We then made another smaller seal with this Chinese calligraphy. This second seal would not have a “fixed” spot on the testamur but rather its position will be rotated among a number of “possible” locations, which will be different for each year of issue. To top it all, we would be having the Registrar or authorized Registry staff handwrite the graduate’s student identification number at the back of the testamur.

The system created and employed by my former institution cannot be fully “automated” as in the Greek universities’ using a blockchain platform. But, unlike our Greek counterparts, Malaysian colleges cherish the opportunity to network with prospective employers who need to contact us for verification/authentication of our graduates’ credentials. We also need to get as much information on our graduates employment prospect as possible and the best people to have the answers are these prospective employers!

The simplest solution is the cheapest and most effective!

Thus, by spending just around RM500, I created a simple solution that could defeat most but the very skillful forger. We do not have to rely on high technology solely to provide a solution. To guard against calamities, I had put in a process of taking photographs of the roll of graduates each year and storing these in the cloud, relying on Google Drive with access shared by key staff only. As Google “never forgets”, I think even if our roll of graduates is lost in a fire or a flood, the records are securely kept in the “cloud”. In my case, the simplest of all solutions is the cheapest and may be the most secured too!

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