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Sharjah Researchers Look to Blockchain Technology to Fight Degree Fraud

Two University of Sharjah researchers hope to use blockchain technology to tackle the growing problem of fake academic certificates, and to make it easier to authenticate valid degrees.

Mohamed Al Hemairy, who heads the university’s Technology Transfer Office, said the idea was to develop a way of validating the authenticity of credentials “as soon as they are issued.”

The project is supported under an agreement the University of Sharjah signed in December with the Bitcoin Association for BSV, based in Switzerland, to develop a framework based on blockchain technology for verifying credentials. The nonprofit association works with government bodies and nongovernmental organizations to advance large-scale implementations of blockchain technology.

Several scandals in recent years prompted Gulf countries to tighten their laws against the fraudulent use of academic degrees and professional certificates.

Al Hemairy and his fellow researcher, Manar Abu Talib, a professor at the university’s College of Computing and Informatics, sought a technological answer to the problem after they experienced difficulties in getting the doctoral degrees they earned in Britain and Canada approved.

The system they are working on would ensure that credentials are issued “quickly and reliably, without the need for verification, certification, or seals,” Al Hemairy said in a telephone conversation.

The system would ensure that credentials are issued “quickly and reliably, without the need for verification, certification, or seals.”

Mohamed Al Hemairy
Head of the university’s Technology Transfer Office

Blockchain technology does not store information in a central location, but copies bit of data and distributes them throughout a computer network. When a new block is added, every computer on the network updates the blockchain. This makes existing blocks harder to modify, and increasingly secure. (See a related article, “Arab Nations Experiment with Blockchain Technology, but Universities Rarely Teach It”.)

Two Basic Problems

Al Hemairy, a researcher in blockchain technology with a Ph.D. from Coventry University, in Britain, said the research project will address two basic problems.

One is the long time it takes to verify credentials; the other is the proliferation of forged academic certificates sold by companies posing as universities.

More than six years ago, The New York Times reported that more than 3,000 people in the Gulf countries had obtained fake certificates. (See a related article, “In Kuwait, a War Against Fake University Degrees”.) In 2020, a Kuwaiti court sentenced an Egyptian man to 63 years in prison for selling phony degrees.

The problem is not confined to the academic world. There have been reports from various countries of nurses, pharmacists and airline pilots with bogus qualifications. Politicians too are fond of degrees they have not earned.

The Bitcoin Association for BSV estimates that there are more than 300 unauthorised universities in the United States alone, and another 270 in Britain.

Coordinating Multiple Systems

In the first phase of their project, Al Hemairy and Abu Talib will work to design a framework that would allow the secure delivery of traditional certificates from degree-granting institutions.

Mohamed Al Hemairy participates in a forum with officials of the Bitcoin Association for BSV, a Swiss-based nonprofit group that promotes large-scale implementations of blockchain technology. (Image via Mohamed Al Hemairy)
Mohamed Al Hemairy participates in a forum with officials of the Bitcoin Association for BSV, a Swiss-based nonprofit group that promotes large-scale implementations of blockchain technology. (Image via Mohamed Al Hemairy)

The framework will have to take into account systems in various Arab and European countries and link them “to achieve communication with each other in a way that facilitates the smooth exchange of data,” Al Hemairy said.

The second phase will include designing an electronic application on mobile phones and a website for issuing and authenticating certificates. A start-up company based at the University of Sharjah will operate the application and its platform, Al Hemairy said.

Abu Talib said the main advantages of using blockchain technology for the database are “non-deformable decentralization, the high degree of security, and maintaining privacy.”

“The database in the blockchain technology does not have an expiration date, which means that it is not subject to modification or deletion,” she wrote in an e-mail to Al-Fanar Media. The decentralized base means that “the community participates in managing the network,” she went on. “Verifying the validity of transactions is not controlled by one party, which prevents the possibility of data manipulation.”

Abu Talib, who holds a Ph.D. in computer science and software engineering from Concordia University, in Canada, explained that each certificate will have an encrypted number, issued through the blockchain technology. “It will be nearly impossible to question the process of issuing the certificate,” she wrote.

“The database in the blockchain technology does not have an expiration date, which means that it is not subject to modification or deletion

Manar Abu Talib
 A professor at the university’s College of Computing and Informatics

The research team intends to communicate with universities inside and outside the Emirates to discuss the appropriate framework for them enable them to issue scientific certificates via one system, she added.

Advantages for Universities

For his part, Nabil Al-Qadi, president of Al-Khawarizmi International College, in the U.A.E,. said in a phone call that blockchain technology “will play a major role in verifying academic certificates when they are disseminated via the electronic method.” He noted that “many universities are now issuing their certificates electronically rather than in a paper form.”

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Al-Qadi, a computer scientist, added: “The process of manually verifying certificates has become difficult and complex in light of the correspondence it needs from state to state and communicating with multiple entities.”

Modern technologies can “facilitate this process through a key code in any certificate that helps to verify the information contained therein,” he said.

By: Amr EL-Tohamy

Amr is an Egyptian journalist who writes for Al-Masry Al-Youm.
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