Editor’s Note: Proof in the Parchment
Print Issue: May/June 2021
Some of the most numerous historical documents in British history are handwritten legal texts on parchment made of animal skin that detail who owned or occupied property. The fact that these documents survived—and in such numbers that they are considered of little historic value—while others have faded or disintegrated has long intrigued researchers and scientists. The key to the mystery, it turns out, is sheep.
Researchers from the University of Exeter published a paper on the subject in March 2021. After investigating 645 samples taken from 477 British property deeds dating from 1499 to 1969, the researchers found that 622 samples were sheepskin. The next question was: Why sheep?
In an article published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Sean Doherty, one of the authors of the study, said: “We were surprised to discover that the deeds were made almost exclusively from sheepskin, as previous research has indicated that other nonlegal documents were written on skins from a range of species. This potential preference for sheepskins could indicate that there was something particularly important about their use.”
The importance was fraud prevention. According to the study, the authors found that sheepskin was preferred for legal documents because alterations were highly visible. The high fat content of sheepskin allows the layers of skin to separate more easily than the skin of other animals, Doherty explained. “To make fraudulent changes to documents after signing, the original text would have to be scraped off. This could cause the layers within sheepskin parchment to separate and leave a visible mark on the document, resulting in the fraud being easily detectable.”
Some security professionals might long for the days of sheepskin. The proliferation of documents in electronic form has led to seemingly endless forms of theft, fraud, and graft. For example, “Frankenstein Fraudsters,” this issue’s cover story by Senior Editor Megan Gates, details the threat of synthetic identity fraud.
Gates writes that these frauds start with the creation of synthetic identities—made from stolen documents, such as Social Security numbers in the United States, paired with different names, addresses, and dates of birth of other real people. The fraudsters then work to make these synthetic identities seem legitimate by applying for phone numbers, email accounts, reward cards, and library card accounts while also entering the identities into public databases used by financial institutions.
Like historic documents, synthetic identity fraud has layers, but those layers of digitized information obfuscate fraud rather than reveal it. And detection is just the beginning. According to Helena Wood, associate fellow, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, “This is not a problem we can arrest our way out of. It has to be a disruption-based approach to tackling fraud. We have to use tried and tested methods for other threats, like terrorism and organized crime, to disrupt fraud.”