How blockchain (the foundation for Bitcoin) may revolutionize student data verification

When Jared Dunnmon and Brendan Farmer, collaborators on a cryptography project in their spare time, sat down with Stanford Registrar Tom Black to discuss verification processes for academic credentials, both sides realized that there was an opportunity for universities to use the latest cryptographic data technology--the much-hyped “blockchain”--to provide verification for student data.

“Trust on the Internet, or, how we verify that the information that we receive is from a certain origin and hasn’t been altered, is a difficult problem,” explains Jared Dunnmon, a Stanford PhD student. “Our conversation with Tom reinforced our belief that there was an opportunity for universities to verify electronic credentials using what we’d built.”

The current state of the art

For an industry that still relies on paper diplomas, fax machines, and the postal service to verify that information about a student is authentic, this would represent a large shift. Many universities use the Adobe digital signing ecosystem to provide digitally-signed PDFs of transcripts and diplomas, but this approach has its problems.

“The problem with using Adobe and Certificate Authorities (CAs) is that there are multiple points of failure - if a bad actor can fool a CA, then he can produce PDFs that look like they were signed by a university, but are in fact forgeries. Plus, the system is expensive and inflexible because it only works for PDFs,” notes Farmer.

Enter blockchain

Widely known as the technical foundation of Bitcoin, the popular cryptocurrency, the blockchain is a “distributed ledger” that allows anyone to verify information without trusting a third party. Once data has been published to the blockchain, it’s included in the ledger forever, and anyone can access it. Fascinated by this concept, Jared and Brendan dove into the cryptographic foundation of the technology. Fundamentally, the term "blockchain’’ just refers to a particular type of cryptographic data structure, and when the two discovered that the specific blockchain architecture underlying Bitcoin wouldn’t be a natural choice for a variety of potential applications, they decided to build their own variant.

“Universities, for instance, aren’t like parties in a Bitcoin transaction. Universities issue their own credentials, and it’s important for them to control how these documents are offered and verified. Building a system to address these needs on top of the Bitcoin blockchain didn’t make sense for a number of reasons,” says Dunnmon. “We leveraged research in cryptography to create a system specifically designed for how entities like universities operate.”

Potential benefits

The potential benefits of this technology are numerous: an ecosystem controlled by universities, without the downsides of a CA infrastructure and the expense of a third-party solution, flexibility in verifying any kind of data (PDF, XML, DOC, etc.), and the ability to integrate different services. For instance, Stanford’s Center for Professional Development is looking to pilot a version of this blockchain technology that integrates directly with LinkedIn and allows users to independently verify the validity of a posted credential.

“This is an exciting opportunity to use cryptography for the public good, and for the Academy to be on the leading edge of applied technological progress," Dunnmon said. "We’re really looking forward to working with Stanford and other organizations to push what we’ve built out into the world.”

Dunnmon and Farmer will discuss their work in an exciting session at AACRAO's 2016 Technology and Transfer Conference, July 10-12, in Anaheim, California. For this and other cutting-edge technological content, register now.