Truth in the digital age

April 10, 1998

THE Internet has made it vastly easier for people to tell the world about themselves. But there is usually no guarantee that what they say is true. That could change. If universities issued electronic degree certificates, authenticated by digital signatures, anyone could check the authenticity of the qualifications listed on Alice's home page.

The less extrovert Bob, who would not dream of having a home page, could attach the same digital certificates to the CVs that he sends by email to employers.

Alice and Bob reserve the right to decide what they reveal about themselves, to an employer or anyone else. What digital technology adds is a simple and reliable way of confirming that the qualifications they claim are genuine.

If all this is possible, do we need a national electronic CV of the kind proposed by Tony Higgins of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (page 2)? His scheme resembles the University for Industry's planned "learning passport" but might be extended to include personal attributes, sporting triumphs and community service. As with any personal data, the right to see one's own record and correct any errors is essential, but the idea is dubious anyway.

Fairness in employment is secured not by prescribing what candidates should disclose, but by constraining what employers can ask. Employers do not take chances; they are only as unprejudiced as the law requires. Wise applicants do not lie, but as our Work Wise special (THES, 20 March) explained, they tailor their CV to the specific job. In an application to a law firm you would not mention your time spent playing underground music on an unlicensed radio station. The same experience might win you a job in a community arts centre.

It is unclear how useful a national system would be in a world where people routinely move between countries as they accumulate education, training and work experience. Italian universities are already expanding into Europe with a website which sells student records to prospective employers (Multimedia, page 28). A global electronic CV system is pie in the sky, but one can see a path to a digital version of the present decentralised system, where institutions and examining bodies arm the student with a portfolio of certificates and diplomas.

It takes a little time to get used to the notion that a properly designed digital certificate is more difficult to forge than any paper document, but that is one premise on which the anticipated electronic economy of the 21st century rests. The other premise is privacy, the right to keep a few secrets in an increasingly transparent world.

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