is an attestation of qualification, competence, or authority issued to an individual by a third party with a relevant de jure
or de facto
authority or assumed competence to do so.
Examples of credentials include academic diplomas, academic degrees, certifications, security clearances, identification documents, badges, passwords, user names, keys, powers of attorney, and so on. Sometimes publications, such as scientific papers or books, may be viewed as similar to credentials by some people, especially if the publication was peer reviewed or made in a well-known journal or reputable publisher.
Types and documentation of credentials
A person holding a credential is usually given documentation or secret knowledge (e.g.,
a password or key) as proof of the credential. Sometimes this proof (or a copy of it) is held by a third, trusted party. While in some cases a credential may be as simple as a paper membership card, in other cases, such as diplomacy
, it may involve presentation of letters directly from the issuer of the credential detailing its faith in the person representing them in a negotiation or meeting.
Counterfeiting of credentials is a constant and serious problem, irrespective of the type of credential. A great deal of effort goes into finding methods to reduce or prevent counterfeiting. In general, the greater the perceived value of the credential, the greater the problem with counterfeiting and the greater the lengths to which the issuer of the credential must go to prevent fraud.
A few examples of credentials and their associated documentation are given below; this list is far from exhaustive.
In foreign diplomacy
, credentials are documents that ambassadors
, diplomatic ministers
, and chargés d'affaires
provide to the government
to which they are accredited
, for the purpose, chiefly, of communicating to the latter the envoy
's diplomatic rank
. It also contains a request that full credence be accorded to his official statements. Until his credentials have been presented and found in proper order, an envoy receives no official recognition. The credentials of an ambassador or minister plenipotentiary are signed by the chief of state
, those of a chargé d'affaires by the foreign minister
. Diplomatic credentials are granted and withdrawn at the pleasure of the issuing authority, based on widely varying criteria.
In medicine, the process of credentialing
is a detailed review of all permissions granted a medical doctor at every institution at which he or she has worked in the past, to determine a risk
profile for trusting them at a new institution. Most medical practitioners also must have credentials in the form of licenses issued by the government of the jurisdictions in which they practice, which they obtain after suitable education, training, and/or practical experience. Most medical credentials are granted for life, but may be withdrawn in the event of fraud or malpractice by their holders.
Credentials in information systems are widely used to control access to information or other resources. The classic combination of a user account number or name and a secret password is a widely-used example of IT credentials. An increasing number of information systems use other forms of documentation of credentials, such as fingerprints
, voice recognition
, retinal scans
, x.509 Public Key Certificate, and so on. Credentials are issued and withdrawn by a central authority for the systems in question based on criteria established or imposed upon that authority.
Operators of vehicles such as automobiles
, and aircraft
must have credentials in the form of government-issued licenses in many jurisdictions. Often the documentation of the license consists of a simple card or certificate that the operator keeps on his person while operating the vehicle, backed up by an archival record of the license at some central location. Licenses are granted to operators after a period of successful training and/or examination.
This type of credential often requires certification of good health and may also require psychological evaluations and screening for substance abuse.
Operator licenses often expire periodically and must be renewed at intervals. Renewal may simply be a formality, or it may require a new round of examinations and training.
Credentials in cryptography establish the identity of a party to communication. Usually they take the form of machine-readable cryptographic keys and/or passwords. Cryptographic credentials may be self-issued, or issued by a trusted third party; in many cases the only criterion for issuance is unambiguous association of the credential with a specific, real individual or other entity. Cryptographic credentials are often designed to expire after a certain period, although this is not mandatory. An x.509 certificate is an example of a cryptographic credential.
Credentials that simply establish a person's identity are very widely used. Documentation usually consists of an identity card (sometimes a credential that is also used for other purposes, such as an automobile driver's license), a badge (often machine-readable), etc., issued by a trusted third party after some form of identity verification. Many identification documents use photographs to help ensure their association with their legitimate holders. Some also incorporate biometric information, passwords, PINs, and so on to further reduce the opportunities for fraud. Identification credentials are among the most widely counterfeited credentials.
Most identification documents are issued for a lifetime, but some must be periodically renewed, particularly if they have other functions besides identification. For example, passports often expire after a certain number of years, and while they may still be valid identification after their expiration, they cannot be used for their other purpose as travel documents.
In military and government organizations, and some private organizations, a system of compartmenting information exists to prevent the uncontrolled dissemination of information considered to be sensitive or confidential. Persons with a legitimate need to have access to such information are issued security clearances,
which can be tracked and verified to ensure that no unauthorized persons gain access to protected information.
Security clearances are among the most carefully guarded credentials. Often they are granted to individuals only after a lengthy investigation and only after their need to have access to protected information has been adequately justified to the issuing authority. The most elaborate security-clearance systems are found in the world's military organizations. Some credentials of this type are considered so sensitive that their holders are not even permitted to acknowledge that they have them (except to authorized parties).
Breaches of security involving security clearances are often punished by specific statutory law, particularly if they occur in the context of deliberate espionage, whereas most other counterfeiting and misuse of credentials is punished by law only when used with deliberate intent to defraud in specific contexts.
Documentation of security clearances usually consists of records keep at a secure facility and verifiable on demand from authorized parties.
Security clearances are regularly withdrawn when they are not longer justified, or when the person holding them is determined to be too great a security risk.
Some countries impose restrictions on who may work for the press
or in a journalistic capacity, and require that anyone allowed to do so carry a government-issued credential. This allows these countries to exert a substantial amount of control over freedom of the press, by selectively granting, withholding, and withdrawing press credentials.
Some government and non-government entities may also require or issue specific credentials of or to persons wishing to interact with them in a journalistic capacity. This may be done to control the dissemination of information about the entity, to ensure favorable reporting, to limit the number of persons acting as press, and so on. These credentials are often independent of any government credentials, although some entities will accept government credentials as a justification for their own, or in lieu of their own.
In the United States, for example, no national press credential exists because it has been held to violate the freedom of press provisions of the country's constitution, but individual government entities (such as the White House and the military) and many non-government entities issue and require press credentials for their own spheres of influence.
Some trades and professions in some jurisdictions require special credentials of anyone practicing the trade or profession. These credentials may or may not be associated with specific competencies or skills. In some cases, they exist mainly to control the number of people who are allowed to exercise a trade or profession, in order to control salaries and wages.
Persons acting as merchants, freelancers, etc., may require special credentials in some jurisdictions as well. Here again, the purpose is mainly to control the number of people working in this way, and sometimes also to track them for tax-reporting or other purposes.
The academic world makes very extensive use of credentials, such as diplomas, certificates, and degrees, in order to attest to the completion of specific training or education programs by students, and to attest to their successful completion of tests and exams.
Documentation of academic credentials usually consists of a printed, formal document designed to last a lifetime without deterioration. The issuing institution often maintains a record of the credential as well. Academic credentials are normally valid for the lifetime of the person to whom they are issued.
Titles are credentials that identify a person as belonging to a specific group, such as the nobility or the aristocracy, or a specific command grade in the military, or in other largely symbolic ways. They may or may not be associated with specific authority, and they do not usually attest to any specific competence or skill (although they may be associated with other credentials that do). A partial list of such titles includes
- personal titles, such as Lord, Knight, Right Honourable, indicating an earned or inherited rank or position within a formal power structure;
- command ranks, such as Captain, Sergeant, etc., indicating likewise a very specific position in a command hierarchy, e.g. police rank or military rank;
- an academic degree or professional designation such as PhD, P.Eng or M.D., whether this be purely honorary or symbolic, or associated with credentials attesting to specific competence, learning, or skills;
- labor union and club memberships;
- persons allowed access to specific areas during special events, such as concerts and shows;
- citizenship, as in the case of passports and birth certificates.
Since the launch of "people" search engines and social networking sites, which look for people instead of websites, problems with spamming and identity theft have created a renewed need to verify credentials online.
Many companies now search the web for indications about their future employees. Human resource management (HRM) at many companies has taken an interest at sites, blogs and profiles of potential candidates.
In the USA there are companies offering to correct "past mistakes" made by people in form of negative comments of or about them.
In Russia there are companies offering a global service to protect people from scammer, especially by listing fake email correspondents.
General life experience
Sometimes general life experience can be regarded as a credential. For example, when prospective authors submit examples of their writing (such as a book) to publishers, they may be asked to present credentials or other proof that their book has benefited from their life experience (for example a person writing a fiction story about a future civilisation may be helped during the selection process if they tell the publisher that they regularly write for futurology journals).