Preventing future college admissions scandals

The recent college admissions scandal resulted in the largest case of its kind to be prosecuted by the US Justice Department. A massive federal investigation code-named ‘Operation Varsity Blues’ uncovered this scandal and charged several high-profile people with bribery, racketeering, money laundering, conspiracy to commit mail and wire fraud. The internet commentary about this topic includes phrases like “broken admissions system”, “rich can buy their way into college”, etc etc.

There must be several other cases of fraud that go unnoticed on a daily basis. It’s in human nature to shortcut the rules, collude and cheat to achieve one’s own short-term goals, hoping to get away with fraudulent actions. Let’s discuss how to use Blockchain technology and create a rigorous system to prevent some aspects of such scandals in future.

Problems: Fake athletic certificates and phony athletic profile. Taking photos of students on a stationary rowing machine. Photoshopping students’ face on another athlete’s photo.

Solution: A genuine high-school athlete achieves his/her athletic credentials during a four year period. Getting a genuine athletic certificate involves achieving several intermediate goals. For example, if you achieved a black belt in karate in your 11th grade, you must have progressed through beginner level (with white, yellow and orange belts), intermediate level (with green, blue, purple, brown and red belts) and then reached the advanced level (with a black belt). Our technology allows sports coaching centers to create certificates for each of these intermediate athletic achievements, sign them using their private keys and post only the SHA-256 hash of the certificate on a public blockchain, thus immutably time-stamping each achievement at the specific day/time the athlete achieved it. The athletic photos can be time-stamped similarly.

This process achieves the seemingly impossible combination of security, privacy and transparency !! Security is achieved by the asymmetric key encryption. Privacy is achieved by the one-way nature of the cryptographic hash function SHA 256. Transparency is achieved by the fact that anybody with the access to the sports certificate (upon student’s consent) can compute the SHA 256 hash of the certificate and verify that it is stored on a public blockchain validly signed by the private key of the issuer (sports coaching center). This eliminates the fraudulent behavior of creating a bunch of fake credentials and photos, all at once, in a brief period of time. Using a fairly decentralized public blockchain is very important here.

Problem: Bribing coaches to accept certain students in their sports teams or issue fake credentials.

Solution: This problem can be solved by having several people (perhaps five coaches, some administrative assistants, one principal, one vice-principal, etc) in the organization collectively responsible (using multi-signature wallets and m-of-n signatures) to issue credentials. Each of the involved person is accountable for every issued certificate.

Bribing one coach is easy. Bribing ten people is hard. People often hesitate bribing multiple people. Collusion becomes increasingly hard when you increase the size of the group involved. When there are more people involved, there is a higher chance that at least one of them is honest (and brave) to overcome the pressure of the others and blow the whistle.

Problem: Fake college entrance exam (SAT, ACT) test scores

Solution: Current paper-based test score issuance and verification system is too time-consuming and error-prone. These credentials can be easily faked or tampered with. An ideal solution involves creating a digital certificate, validly signed (or multi-signed) by the issuer and time-stamped with a SHA 256 hash on a public blockchain. See my previous post about preventing fraud in academic transcripts and making the entire system efficient.

Problem: Other students taking entrance tests on your behalf.

Solution: This is a problem of verifying the identity of the student taking the test. The current system of using paper-based credentials is broken. It’s easy to create fake driver’s license, passports etc. We have created an automated multi-step identity verification that combines your standard KYC identity procedures, utility bills and more importantly biometrics. We define identity as a several data points achieved over a period of time, not just one piece of paper. It’s very hard to cheat all of these steps. If you have a look-alike twin then consider yourself lucky :)

Partially solvable problems: Bribing officials to change student’s answers in paper-based exam can be solved to certain extent by using a completely computer-based exam. Bribing proctors to tell the answers to a student (during the test) can be solved with computer-vision-based cheating detection software. Some photoshopped images can be detected using image analysis techniques.

Hard to solve problems: (1) Getting a fake medical certificate that your kid requires an isolated room to take the test and then bribing the proctor to tell him/her all the answers during the test. (2) Laundering bribes using a non-profit entity. Phew…. These things actually happened during this college admissions scandal. As the famous saying goes “a person is capable of as much atrocity as he/she has imagination”.

In summary, combining the existing technologies we can solve several of the above mentioned problems and simultaneously achieve security, privacy and transparency. The main goal here is to make the bad people’s job very difficult and simultaneously making the good people’s job very efficient.

Founder & CEO True Dat. Mathematician, Cryptographer, Ex-Princeton Lecturer preventing & detecting fake photos, videos & misinformation using AI & Blockchain.