Online proctoring services pose privacy concerns for remote learning
December 18, 2020
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As the fall semester began at the University of Nevada, Reno, psychology professor Mark Lescroart faced an increasingly common dilemma for teachers: How to prevent his newly remote students from cheating on the quizzes and exams he’d designed to be taken in class with supervision.

“I have been uncomfortable with the idea that cheating is pretty easy when you’re online,” Lescroart told Recode in October.

One possible solution his university provided was Proctorio, an online proctoring service that uses machine learning. But Lescroart didn’t like the prospect of third-party software recording and analyzing his students in their homes. Ultimately, he decided that violating their privacy was worse than leaving a potential cheater uncaught.

But many teachers around the country have come to a different conclusion. As online education has become the norm in the Covid-19 pandemic, they’ve opted to use services like Proctorio. The services have ignited controversy, too. Privacy advocates hate them, and students have protested, starting petitions and accusing the services of being invasive, discriminatory, and inaccurate.

In December, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) accused five online test proctoring services, including Proctorio, of unfair and deceptive trade practices in a complaint filed with the Office of the Attorney General of the District of Columbia. EPIC also informed the five companies that it is preparing to file a lawsuit unless they change their practices. Several US senators have also recently written to the companies producing these tools to request more information about privacy, bias, and accessibility concerns raised by their tools.

Some educators have spoken out against this tech or, like Lescroart, have opted not to use it. But for the most part, the schools that use the software haven’t budged, citing the importance of maintaining academic integrity.

“All these things are kind of predicated on a relationship where academic dishonesty is rampant,” notes Bill Fitzgerald, a privacy expert who focuses on education technologies, “and the only thing stopping more academic dishonesty is more surveillance via for-profit tech.”

Even though the end of the pandemic may be on the horizon, online learning is likely here to stay, and students have realized that educational institutions are happy to collect ever-more data about their homes and bodies if those institutions think the ends justify the means. Their teachers, meanwhile, are left somewhere in the middle. They can either make their students adjust to online proctoring software, or they can adjust their lesson plans and assessments so that the software isn’t needed.

Proctorio and its problems, explained

At the beginning of the pandemic, schools needed ways to bring their classes online quickly in the middle of the semester. So they turned to a slew of small companies, like ProctorU, ExamSoft, Honorlock, and Proctortrack, which typically served the burgeoning remote learning industry. The idea behind these companies’ software, generally, is to recreate the security of an in-classroom exam by using remote human proctors to watch the test-taking students through their computers’ cameras.

Proctorio doesn’t use human proctors at all; it relies on software to detect and flag suspicious behavior. The company’s software can, among other things, use a simple web browser extension to record video and audio through students’ webcams and laptop microphones, to record their computer screens and collect a list of the websites a student visits while taking the test. Proctorio software also uses facial detection to see if a student is looking away from their screen, leaves the room, or if there’s another person in the frame — any of which could indicate cheating.

Like other remote learning services, Proctorio has grown immensely during the pandemic. The company told Recode that in 2020, it was used by more than 1,200 institutions and had proctored nearly 20 million exams — more than three times the 6 million it administered in 2019.

But many students revile the service. Some say there’s not enough transparency about how recordings are managed or how data about their homes and bodies is being used or stored. Proctorio’s competitors have reported data breaches that exposed the information of hundreds of thousands of students. One student told Recode that Proctorio’s algorithm seemed to struggle to recognize them, a sign that its software could be racially biased.

Proctorio has become particularly controversial among online proctoring services. The company, led by CEO Mike Olsen, has a history of lashing out at detractors. Over the course of the pandemic, Olsen and Proctorio have posted student chat transcripts, beat back criticism aired by students in campus newspapers and on social media, demanded retractions of negative articles, and even filed a lawsuit against a school staff member.

“Like most companies, when we believe facts have been misrepresented in an article, we have the right to open a dialogue with the reporter,” Proctorio told Recode. “Similarly, like most technology companies, we will take steps to protect our intellectual property when it is improperly shared.”

Now there are slews of online petitions from students calling for the service to be discontinued, and other students have brought the issue to their student governments. For instance, some in the student senate at Miami University called for school legislation that would require teachers to undergo training before using Proctorio, and the student government at Cal Poly Pomona has advocated for policies for regulating teachers’ use of the software. Some have even publicly called out specific classes for using the software.

“You don’t need to be a tech policy expert to see that these are evil,” said Gennie Gebhart, acting activism director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Defenders of online proctoring say it’s simply recreating remotely what exam-takers would experience in person. Preventing cheating ensures that students learn the material, rewards honest students, and maintains the value of their degrees, according to Proctorio. “When you graduate, you want to make sure your degree is worth something,” Olsen told Recode.

Olsen also says his software preserves students’ privacy by limiting what data third parties, and Proctorio itself, can access. Because the proctoring is completely automated and the data is encrypted, Proctorio says, only the test administrators have access to such things as video footage. Although Proctorio says it has never had a data breach, a first-year computer science student at Miami University told Recode that he was able to find a potential vulnerability in Proctorio’s much-touted encryption protocols. While it’s not unusual for outside parties to find vulnerabilities in companies’ software or code — and Proctorio improved its encryption within weeks to fix the issue — it’s not a great look.

Akash Satheesan, the student who flagged the issue, told Recode he was able to convince one of his professors not to use the software by the end of the semester. “Miami University has this thing on their website about academic integrity, right?” he said. “It says, ‘academic integrity is about learning, responsibility, accountability, fairness, respect, honesty, and trust.’ So all I’m asking for is universities to extend that respect and trust to their students.”

“We’re thankful for researchers who disclose vulnerabilities to us; the security technology space needs more ethical hackers,” Olsen said. “We look forward to formalizing a program in the future around security disclosures, such as a bug bounty program.”

Beyond that, Olsen says it’s up to institutions and educators to select which of Proctorio’s monitoring services to use and to review any suspicious actions flagged by it to determine for themselves if a student is cheating.

“We really try as hard as we can to coach the universities and the faculty into using the products in the best, most ethical way possible,” Olsen told Recode. “And that’s why we give them those various settings. Maybe you don’t need the webcam recording on every single exam, maybe it only needs to be on in a final or some sort of comprehensive exam.”

Proctorio and schools often put student privacy in instructors’ hands

But students have very little control over how their schools use online proctoring services, and their complaints aren’t always sufficiently addressed by their institutions.

Erik Johnson, another first-year student at Miami University, has been an active critic of Proctorio. He started a petition to end the use of the software at his school, and earlier this year posted tweets criticizing the site. Proctorio didn’t respond positively: It succeeded in getting some of Johnson’s tweets removed by Twitter under a copyright complaint, and the service blocked Johnson’s IP address so he could no longer use the software to take his exams. Johnson says that his instructors set up separate tests for Johnson over Zoom (and screen-sharing), but teachers at the university seem to have continued to use Proctorio for their other students.

At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, a petition calling to ban the use of Proctorio had amassed more than 2,000 signatures as of December 16. When asked about backlash from students, a UT spokesperson said in an email, “Our faculty and provost is happy with the product and we will continue to use it,” and didn’t provide further comment.

Administrators at the University of Colorado Boulder told Recode that the software did not pass an accessibility audit, but the school is still using it. Students, instructors, and the school’s disability service are supposed to make other arrangements if Proctorio can’t be used.

Schools generally purchase proctoring software for teachers, leaving it up to instructors to ultimately decide whether to use something like Proctorio. Some professors see the software as the best option.

Nena Kabranski, who teaches math at Tarrant County College in Texas, has used the software for several years, and even more so during the pandemic. She says that Proctorio is the best option available, given the circumstances, though adds the software is mandatory at her school. Still, Kabranski says that students are frequently wrongly flagged for suspicious behavior.

Carliss Miller, an assistant professor of management at Sam Houston State University, told Recode she used Proctorio for the first time last spring. She restricted Proctorio’s settings to detect when students went to other websites or recorded the exams to possibly share with a classmate, and said she found the service to be “very helpful.”

While Miller didn’t catch any students cheating, she thinks that just knowing that they’re being watched might have been enough to stop students from trying to. And when she didn’t use Proctorio for her summer classes, she noticed that one student who “wasn’t necessarily a good performer” got a perfect score on an exam — an indication that the student may have cheated. Now, she is planning on using Proctorio next semester.

Miller is aware of privacy concerns about the software and said some of her students weren’t happy that they had to use it. But she doesn’t think it’s worse than some of the data-collecting tools her students voluntarily use, like mobile phones and smart devices.

“I don’t see it being any different than if you’re face to face and I have a grad assistant helping me monitor to make sure no one is cheating,” Miller said.

But others are changing how they teach and assess students to avoid the need for proctoring services entirely. When Matthew Anderson, an Ohio State University assistant professor of microbiology, unexpectedly found himself teaching a hybrid in-person and remote class when the fall semester began, he took it as an opportunity to rethink his assessments.

The revamped tests “required students to demonstrate that they are understanding things beyond simply being able to look for the answer in their lecture notes and then just write on a piece of paper,” Anderson told Recode in October. “That, I think, is a good investment in people’s future and their education.”

Proctorio signals a concerning future for students’ technology rights

The US Education Department hasn’t issued guidance for online proctoring, but students’ complaints have been taken up by lawmakers. On December 3, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, along with other senators, wrote to several online proctoring services asking specifically about how the companies handle privacy in their software, and also about accessibility and racial bias issues in the products.

“Virtual exam proctoring companies must swiftly remedy alarming equity, accessibility, and privacy issues students have reported,” Blumenthal told Recode. “I will work on every fix necessary to ensure students are protected.”

Online learning won’t go away whenever the pandemic does, but schools’ unsympathetic response to students’ concerns could leave a lasting impression.

“It’s not going to be back to normal,” Ian Linkletter, an education technology specialist at the University of British Columbia, told Recode, noting that many online proctoring companies have signed contracts with schools that will be renewed.

Linkletter emphasizes that a lot of harm has already been done. He spoke out against Proctorio earlier this year, and the company responded by suing him for copyright infringement. Linkletter is crowdfunding his own defense, and the University of British Columbia is not publicly commenting on the company’s suit against its employee. In response to student objections to the service, the school has released a letter to students defending Proctorio, and also directed Recode to a statement emphasizing that faculty members ultimately choose whether or not to use Proctorio.

“There’s a much bigger narrative about why we think surveillance is an answer to questions that are fundamentally pedagogical,” said Shea Swauger, a researcher at University of Colorado Denver who has criticized Proctorio, “and why we think that student punishment and surveillance are the answer [or] why we would trust a software company to try to solve an educational problem.”

But until a mass reimagining of online education arrives, schools are continuing to leave the choice to use such software up to individual instructors, many of whom are already saddled with the additional stress of teaching through a pandemic and may not be or feel qualified to make that decision.

Looking back on his semester, Lescroart, the University of Nevada, Reno, professor, told Recode in December that he was happy with his decision not to use Proctorio.

“My views haven’t changed, I think it was the right choice, and many of my students have expressed gratitude for it,” Lescroart said. “We’re all just getting by.”

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