White Paper on Validity of Printed eQSLs
  A treatise on eQSL security, and why ham organizations should accept eQSLs
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White Paper on Validity of Printed eQSLs
We want contesting and award-granting organizations to accept printed eQSL cards that were generated from an eQSL computer system, instead of commercially pre-printed "traditional" QSL cards.

What about an eQSL that is transmitted to the organization electronically?
This is an entirely different issue. In order for an award-granting organization to accept an eQSL electronically, it must construct a computer system that is capable of receiving the eQSLs electronically, collecting them, and associating them with a particular applicant. There is considerable cost associated with this, both in terms of technology infrastructure and in resources required for administration.

But this is a source of confusion. If an organization says it will not accept electronic QSLs, it might mean:

  1. "We will not accept an e-mail containing a QSO log, because it cannot be verified", OR
  2. "We will not accept any document that has been electronically transmitted at any stage"

In this white paper, we will not discuss electronic submissions, but will rather discuss why organizations should accept a printed card that has been generated from our online database.

Let's look at the differences between "traditional QSL cards" and "eQSL cards"
A traditional QSL card has been printed by a commercial printer. It was filled out by hand, and may even bear a cancelled stamp applied by the sender, which might attest to the fact that it was mailed through the postal service.

On the other hand, an eQSL card was generated automatically by a computer system, based on input from the originator. The type and thickness of paper stock used to print the eQSL is up to the recipient, not the originator. There will be no stamp and no cancellation marks from a postal service, because the eQSL was printed by the recipient on his own computer printer.

Ham organizations may dislike the concept of eQSLs because:

  1. Since the card is printed on the recipient's printer, it would appear that anyone could "make up" a card and claim credit for a QSO that did not in fact take place. We call this the "Printing Technology Problem".
  2. Since the card has no handwriting on it, the originator cannot verify that the card was filled in with his/her own handwriting. We call this the "Handwriting Problem".
  3. Since the card does not have a cancelled stamp on it, there is no proof the card originated in the foreign country being claimed. We call this the "Postal Service Problem".

Let's dissect the problems one by one:

  1. In this day and age, anyone with a color inkjet or laser printer can forge a QSL card and make it look like a "traditional" QSL card by simply using a heavy card stock. The forged card could then be submitted along with other authentic cards, fooling the organization. Thus, one cannot rely on thickness of card stock and colors to prove a card's authenticity. It doesn't matter whether this is a "traditional" card or an eQSL! Printing technology is sophisticated enough that even the government has gone to extraordinary lengths to change our paper currency. If someone wants to make DXCC that badly, they will be able to make a card to fool anyone!
  2. Many people do not hand write their "traditional" cards now, especially when sending out hundreds of cards. They use labels or type or print the information into the correct spots on a "traditional" card. Thus, one cannot say that only handwritten cards are authentic.
  3. Some hams like to mail QSL cards in an envelope to avoid having the postal service "mess up" the nice image or create folds, nicks, and bruises on the card. U.S. hams often mail "green stamps" along with their traditional cards to make it easier for DX hams to respond. Thus, a good percentage of traditional cards do not have a cancelled stamp on the card itself. In addition, the concept of a QSL Manager and QSL Bureaus make the stamped, postmarked QSL card even more of a rarity. Thus, one cannot say that only stamped, cancelled cards are authentic.

How might someone create a fictitious QSL card?
(Note that, again, we do not believe award-granting organizations will be willing to accept eQSLs electronically in the forseeable future, because of the expense involved in doing so. So, we are still talking about creating a fake printed card.)
A person wanting to create a "traditional" QSL card for a QSO that did not actually take place could use PhotoShop, CorelDraw, Adobe Illustrator, or any one of a number of different software packages to create a nice looking QSL card in the correct size, and print it on heavy card stock in a color inkjet or laser printer.

How would the organization know the card was fake?
Right now, organizations cannot tell for sure if a "traditional" card is a fake, unless the person checking the cards has some suspicion that the card looks bogus. S/he would then contact both hams listed on the card and verify the QSO actually took place. This could take weeks or months, because typically this verification must be done by writing a letter. Phone numbers are not always available and long distance calls cost too much.

How does eQSL.cc simplify this verification process?
We have a computer-to-computer QSO verification program that organizations can build into their automated QSL-checking software to verify any eQSL against our database in an automated fashion. Instructions are in the VerifyQSO.txt file.

Could an unscrupulous person register as the "other" ham and create bogus log entries?
Yes, s/he could register and post fake log entries. This is why we created the Authenticity Guaranteed program. Under this program, a person can upload a scanned image of his/her amateur radio license. Another person wanting to check to see if the "other" ham might be bogus can click on the "Authenticity Guaranteed" logo and can see the scanned license image.

Can the scanned license image be faked?
Go ahead and try! Most government authorities have selected a paper stock that would be very difficult to duplicate by amateurs. If a person is that hungry for a bogus DXCC certificate, s/he would surely be able to fake out even the most persistent attempts at validation, regardless of whether the card was submitted as a "traditional" or eQSL card.

Can someone obtain an eQSL card and modify the graphic to show a bogus QSO?
Let's say someone wanted to obtain a DXCC certificate from ARRL by fraudulent means. This is the process he would have to follow to obtain an eQSL and to corrupt it:

  1. Obtain the date, callsign, and band of a legitimate QSO (from where?)
  2. Retrieve the card that was supposed to go to the "other" ham
  3. Save the card on disk
  4. Modify the graphic using photo manipulation software, overcoming the tamperproof coding in the graphic and without distorting the graphic when the bogus callsign is inserted (not as easy as you may think!)
  5. Print the card and submit it
  6. Hope that ARRL does not use the VerifyQSO software to verify the QSO against our log database

Don't be fooled by people wildly dismissing eQSLs as being too easy to falsify. Yes, it is true that anybody with a color inkjet printer can create any QSL card he wants to nowadays. (Would you like to see the DXCC certificate I created on my inkjet printer?)

The difference is that the eQSL.cc system is more secure and less easy to "fake", because every card can be verified all the way back to its source!

Dave Morris, N5UP
Founder and Webmaster, eQSL.cc

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