The Buchele Adventure

This is record of the Buchele Adventure, as reported from West Africa.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Field Trip! By Suzanne

The second to last week of class, the Applied Cryptography and Computer Security class went on a field trip to Corenett in Accra.  Corenett does ATM software, plus other transaction processing services and software. Three Ashesi alumni, David, Eric, and Victor, currently work there, and other Ashesi grads have worked there in the past.  I was very thankful that they took time out of their busy schedule to host us for the morning, since it was so enlightening and educational!  

We took the Ashesi mini-bus down to Accra, and since it was Friday we hit substantial traffic, and ended up being 40 minutes late.  No worries our hosts said, we were expecting us to be late (everyone knows that traffic is worse on Fridays, even in the morning!).  I have taken US students on field trips many times in the past, and I must say the atmosphere on the Ashesi mini-bus was more like a party compared to a Southwestern van full of students which is much more somber.  The Ashesi students were laughing and conversing loudly for pretty much the 90 minute drive.  It was a festive event!

When we arrived, our hosts greeted us and we went around and introduced ourselves.  Much to my surprise, the Ashesi alums talked about how many classes each had had with me, and how tough a professor I was – but with a warm spirit and kind heart.  I wasn’t expecting Buchele testimonials!  Then we started our tour by looking at the hardware in the server room, and there were plenty of examples of physical security (that is, measures in place that physically secure the door or physically attach the servers to the rack) which I don’t want to detail since I don’t want to undermine their security.  They have one server that will self-destruct under certain circumstances, in a real-life Mission Impossible kind of way!  We also heard about their backups and multiple levels of power backups.  Then we saw how smart cards are created, again with some interesting applications of physical security and “secret splitting”. 

Victor telling us about the cardless ATM withdrawal system
Then on to the control room, where in real-time they monitor all the ATMs that they serve, including watching transactions as they are occuring and seeing which ATMs are online, in use, off line, need money, or are currently being serviced.  We also heard about the cardless ATM withdrawal system that the three Ashesi alums built from the ground up – it allows users to access their mobile money (from carriers such as MTN or Airtel) and withdraw mobile money in the form of cash from an ATM!  A useful system in a country in which it is a cash economy and few people have bank accounts.  They are currently piloting the system at several ATMs across Accra.

Nii explaning the insides of the ATM to us
Lastly, we saw the ATMs they manufacture/assemble, and were even able to see the insides and hear about exactly how they function (again, details omitted for obvious reasons!).  I did an ATM withdrawal later that day at one of the big international banks later that day and noticed that Corenett’s ATMs had much better features, like mirrors so you could see what was going on behind you and a shielded keypad so anyone standing to the side could not see what numbers you are typing. 

Throughout the tour we heard about exactly how they employ cryptographic methods throughout their systems, as well as personnel and physical security, to provide products and services with excellent and airtight security!  It was a fantastic supplement to what we learned in the course!
The class field trip, plus our hosts David, Eric, Victor, and Nii
Afterward we went to one of my favorite spots, Papaye, for lunch.  Eric was able to join us as well, and brought back lunch to David, Victor, and Nii who were busy solving some issue at one of their Nigeria clients and so couldn’t join us.  They have clients all over West and even North and Central Africa, and from what I saw I suspect they will continue to grow and prosper. All in all is was a great learning experience, it was wonderful to see my former students doing so well, and it was encouraging to see such sophisticated work being done in Ghana!  


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