An Original Question

Protecting the authenticity of digital records

“We don’t really have originals anymore,” says The University of British Columbia (UBC) professor Luciana Duranti, commenting on the trend to generate records such as land deeds, photographs and statements of financial transactions only in digital form. There’s no doubt that the trend toward creating digital records has brought numerous benefits—improved efficiency among them. However, Duranti was one of the first researchers to realize that countries around the world needed to grapple with this new approach to record-making, or face serious challenges later on.

The chair of UBC’s master’s of archival studies program literally woke up one morning and asked herself how we could ensure important records—those created, for example, by governments, businesses and artists—could remain authentic and accessible in the face of rapid technological change.

There are tried and true strategies for dealing with original (non-digital) documents.  Handwriting, ink or paper analysis, for example, have been used to determine authenticity. Keeping a record accessible and preserving it simply meant holding onto it. “In Rome, we have records from the sixth century,” comments Duranti, who worked with the State Archives of Rome from 1978 to 1982.  

It’s a different matter altogether with digital documents. Technology that creates a record today is obsolete tomorrow. So if the police gather digital evidence—for example, records generated using global positioning systems (GPS)—will they be able to read the file three years later when the case is in court and technology has likely changed? If the police have to convert the file to another format in order to make it accessible for use during a criminal trial, how can we be sure the evidence has not been altered in some way?  

These sorts of questions were the genesis of the InterPARES  (International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems) project, which Duranti is leading with support from SSHRC. The project began in 1999 and is currently in its third phase, which runs until 2012.

“With digital documents, you have to make sure that the material is generated in such a way that it can be preserved,” says Duranti. Based on this premise, InterPARES researchers have developed strategies, policies and standards for preserving authentic records within archives.

It’s also important to have processes and procedures that all countries agree on. “Most organizations are multinational. Their records must be recognized as authentic in every country,” says Duranti. That’s why the InterPARES project involves participants from 21 countries, including Australia, Botswana, China and the United States. As well, individuals who create the digital records that society deems valuable—for administrative, legal or cultural reasons—have also been part of the research process.

“The initial strategy involved people such as musicians, scientists, doctors and lawyers. They are the people who know the characteristics of their material and have an interest in protecting them,” says Duranti.  

InterPARES’s work is attracting attention. China has already adopted InterPARES authenticity requirements as law; European financial institutions have approached the project for assistance in ensuring the authenticity of bank transactions; and Duranti’s students are sought after by institutions around the world.

“People tend to jump on the bandwagon where technology is concerned,” she says. “They think mainly about what a system can do for them in the moment. Since InterPARES has started, people have started thinking more long-term where digital records are concerned.”