By Dr Adrian Burden, Co-Founder and CEO of BlockMark Technologies Ltd, provider of the BlockMark Registry certificate management platform for individuals, organizations, and things.

In a world of misinformation, deep fakes, cyber security breaches and scams, it is becoming harder to know who you can trust and what you can believe.

Purchased products may turn out to be counterfeits or of falsified provenance. Individuals may misrepresent their training and qualifications, whilst businesses can make false claims about their accreditation to industry bodies or within regulated sectors. The European Union recently approved new legislation to clamp down on ‘greenwashing’ by businesses in a move to help curb fake or exaggerated claims by businesses on their green credentials.

All these issues can in turn lead to significant financial loss, a damaged brand reputation, or costly litigation.

A World of Certificates

Almost everywhere you look from the day you are born to the day you die, certificates play an important role in our lives. As individuals we have a birth certificate, exam certificates, a driving license, membership certificates, training certificates, insurance certificates, and eventually a death certificate. Traditionally these are paper-based sheets we store somewhere safe or display framed on a wall.

They get lost, they get damaged, and they are very hard for someone else to properly verify; usually having to go back to the issuer and see if their records concur. Replacements are usually extremely costly – the fee to replace a lost US citizenship certificate, for example, is currently $555, certainly not pocket change!

Organizations also receive certificates: an incorporation certificate, insurance certificates, quality assurance certificates, corporate memberships, industry awards, sector accreditations, and so on.  As an organization grows, these credentials are harder to manage as they are acquired by different parts of the business and expire at different times. Moreover, many cost time and money to obtain and by showcasing them, you can differentiate yourself from your competitors and start to get a return on each investment.

And finally, items also get certificates: cars have an MOT road-worthiness certificate in the UK, houses receive energy performance certificates, electrical items are safety tested, fine wine has a certification of origin, and products in general receive warranties linked to their serial numbers. If an item changes ownership, it would be nice if any certificates moved seamlessly with it to the new custodian.

Digital is the Solution

Having a digital certificate makes perfect sense. In some industries, adoption has been quicker. Your certificate to travel on a plane (boarding pass) has long been available in your smart phone wallet.  During the covid pandemic, we all got used to our vaccination certificates being made available within an app showing a QR-code.  And yet in other areas, we still receive certificates in the post or as an isolated pdf attachment to an email.

But digital certificates offer so much more convenience. They can still be printed and displayed if desired, but they be more easily shared, they can be displayed on websites, and they can be centrally monitored and managed when they need renewing, revoking or validating.

Closing the Loop

Most importantly, certificates need to be inspected and verified. They are only valuable and believable if they can be individually validated in terms of what they cover, who issued them and when. A digital certificate can provide a direct link back to the issuer and the certification scheme, making it straight forward for the inspector to check that the credential is bona-fide and still in force.

This is important due diligence for hiring new staff, contracting with a new supplier, buying a new product, or even supplying to a new customer.

Better still would be a digital certificate platform that allows certificates to be issued, received and inspected all within the same application. This would enable the loop to be efficiently closed so that issuers, recipients and inspectors could instantly access up-to-date information about the credential and be alerted if anything changes.

Trusting the System

Certificates are usually important documents that are being relied upon for some reason, whether that is identity, insurance, competence, or some kind of specification. It is not enough to know the certificate is genuine; it also needs to be accurate and untampered.

A centralized digital system goes a long way to achieving this, but still information could be changed unilaterally which undermines trust in a certification scheme. One solution is to use distributed ledger technology (like a blockchain) to anchor data about a certificate at the time of issue. This can provide an independent record of the certificate, a bit like a notarised copy of a legal agreement. In some cases, this additional security makes digital certificates more useful and hence more valuable.

Physical Digital Divide

Linking a digital certificate (or even a physical paper one for that matter) unequivocally with a physical object like a person or thing (or even an ethereal entity like an organization) is still a challenge. Ultimately there is no silver bullet, but certificates can be strongly linked through identity numbers and serial numbers with the case strengthening when there is consistency, similar to multiple forms of identity showing the same underlying data like name, address and date of birth.

A digital certificate platform can also assist here because certificates for the same organisation (identified by the same company registration number, for example) can be collated and viewed together. This portfolio approach to certification also brings value to the accredited entity, as it demonstrates competency and a broader commitment to quality.

But also, there are plenty of digital things out there that can benefit from integrated digital certificates.  We already accept these behind the scenes often without giving them much consideration, like security certificates that confirm websites are secure and bona fide.

Expect to see much more of this in the future, like digital certificates that confirm the origin of digital content on social media, in videos, on news sites and general websites. Individuals and organizations will be able to (and will probably need to) show their accreditations and qualifications alongside their output, be that social media posts, web content, products or services.

Full Credential Control

Certificates can expire or even be revoked if a condition is not continually met. A car is technically not insured if its roadworthiness certificate lapses. Digital certificates give that level of control as digital badges can automatically disappear from a website or email signature when the credential is no longer valid.  Sensitive certificates can be shared privately for a limited time.

Personal information on a certificate can be shared appropriately in specific instances; for example proof of being over eighteen need not involve divulging your actual date of birth (nor indeed your name and address) at the door to a night club by showing your entire driving license or ID card!

Certificates in the Cloud

The cloud provides an ideal location from which to host digital credentials, as they can be centrally managed, shared, updated and inspected. Having high availability and appropriate security means that certificates can be checked and monitored on demand, without having to request copies and retain copies. Moreover, as blockchain technology matures, integration will increase with cloud services which will bring additional trust and value to the world of certification.  The days of inanimate paper or pdf certificates are numbered but the importance and ubiquity of digital credentials are only just beginning.