As college resumes, students protest against invasive proctoring apps

Like much student activism these days, this movement started with a post on the internet. Specifically, the Baruch College subreddit at the beginning of the school year. A student alleged that a professor was forcing them to spend $15 for a proctoring app called Proctorio, which would then lock down their computers and record them while taking a test. “If the school is concerned about us cheating, then we shouldn’t have to pay more to prevent that,” the student wrote.

The post caught the attention of Aharon Grama, a sophomore at Brooklyn College, one of Baruch’s City University of New York (CUNY) sister schools. Grama told Digital Trends that he began chatting with other students on several CUNY-related Discord servers, and discovered that a group at Baruch had already started a petition to block the school from requiring students to download the software. Grama led the charge and, after three weeks, the petition garnered close to 28,000 signatures.

In the new world where college is almost entirely online, schools have a lot of kinks to iron out. In between figuring out access for students with disabilities, and whether kids even have steady internet access, the question of how to fairly administer tests rears its head.

Proctoring apps and education resources to monitor test takers abound, but many of these apps — under the guise of ensuring academic integrity — require an invasive amount of access to a student’s computer, experts say. And what’s more, many students feel as if they don’t have a choice; they have to use the app, or they will run afoul of their professors and won’t be able to take their midterms or finals.

In case you missed it, this petition is almost at 20K signatures. Calling for @CUNY to not violate student privacy in the midst of CUNYs transition to distance learning. Every CUNY Provost needs to make a commitment to ensuring the safety of our privacy. https://t.co/xysuHvVMyy

— Timothy Hunter (@TheTimHunter) September 3, 2020

The apps, when installed, might do anything from completely lock down your computer remotely so that nothing except the test app is usable, to recording keystrokes, to monitoring your eye and body movement, to accessing the data on your computer or your web browser, wrote Lindsay Oliver and Jason Kelley of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“Much of this technology is effectively indistinguishable from spyware, which is malware that is commonly used to track unsuspecting users’ actions on their devices and across the internet,” Oliver and Kelley wrote.

“A lot of students are concerned that the administration wants to use this invasive tech to surveil them,” said Caitlin Steeley George, a campaign director for Fight for the Future, which has been engaging in on-campus privacy issues, including the use of proctoring apps and the spread of facial recognition technology at colleges. “It forces access to your computers, it forces them to film their rooms, it can look at your private information and communications, and tracks their eye movements. It’s a very Orwellian style of surveillance, and it’s not necessary for successful test-taking.”

Is it spyware?

Proctorio CEO Mike Olsen told Digital Trends that he’s aware of the messy reputation proctoring apps have, from accusations of using facial recognition, to being used more widely as a surveillance tool for students. “We got into this [business] because the incumbents in the space were doing things that were violations of privacy, and things that were shady,” he said. “We don’t want our system to be used for bad things.”

The intent, Olsen said, was to create a service that is not extremely invasive. With Proctorio, there’s nothing to download, or any monitoring of the desktop, he said — the app is a browser extension that is inert when the student is not signed into the school’s learning management system. However, when it is activated, Proctorio offers a suite of features that schools can choose to activate or not, and therein lies the rub.

Iris Wang/Unsplash

Olsen confirmed that Proctorio is contracted with CUNY through the company McGraw Hill. While the app doesn’t track body movements, or browser history, Olsen said they are tracking what he called “gaze detection” — the tracking of eye movements to make sure a student isn’t looking at a phone, for example — and they’re also monitoring whether you’re using your keyboard, although they won’t record individual keyboard strokes.

Professors using Proctorio can also choose to video record their students taking the test, and may even ask students to do an “environment check,” or to record the room around them. “The intent [of the environment check] was to show the desk,” Olsen said. “To show that you don’t have a cheat sheet. And we have documentation that shows people are not comfortable showing their rooms. We try to make it clear to institutions that this is a pandemic, and they don’t need to have this aggressive stance these days.”

Fear of retribution

CUNY has not responded to a request for comment. According to Grama, the school never officially responded to the petition. Instead, a few days after the petition went up, the school sent an email saying that faculty could not force any student to download the apps, and that “whenever possible, alternative methods of assessment” should be used.

The school also said it had set up a task force in the spring to address the issue of remote testing, and it updated the language on its coronavirus website to include a message from the Office of Counsel that said professors cannot compel students to use proctoring apps. At the same time, the school said it was negotiating contracts with two more companies to provide proctoring services.

Grama said he’s counting the school’s email as a win, but it’s not the end of the story.

“One of the big issues in having students come out publicly against this, is fear of retribution from professors”

Kesi Gordon, who recently graduated from CUNY’s York College, was part of the proctoring app task force and kept students informed as to the committee’s progress. She told Digital Trends that while the school has backed off of forcing students to use proctoring apps, individual professors are still insisting.

“The university is trying to push other means, but it’s the decision of the instructor to use remote proctoring if they feel it’s necessary,” Gordon said. “Certain professors feel this is the best way to have integrity, but there’s other ways. Distance learning makes learning harder for some people. Professors should make sure people are really learning, and not just trying to catch them cheating.”

“One of the big issues in having students come out publicly against this, is fear of retribution from professors,” said Benjamin, a senior finance major at Baruch College who asked to be anonymous for exactly this reason. “In the first week of classes, I had a professor who was very snarky about using a proctoring service, making comments like ‘Oh, you think you’re going to be able to cheat! well you’re not!’”

Eyecrave/Getty Images

After the email to professors went out, Benjamin said another professor said they would disable Proctorio, but only reluctantly. “I wouldn’t say they sounded upset, but they definitely weren’t happy about the development,” he said.

Grama said students were not made aware their classes would be using Proctorio until after he got his syllabi. At that point, for many students, their schedules for the semester were already set, making it difficult for students to opt out of using the software or switch their classes. Students may feel caught, as they are unable to switch their classes, unwilling to let themselves be monitored, and afraid of running afoul of their professors.

“People on Discord are still saying, ‘Oh, my professor is forcing us [to use the apps],’ and that professor has tenure, so no one will do anything,” Grama said. “You don’t want to be on the professor’s naughty list.”

“I 110% sympathize with the admins who have to try to make this call, but the thing is, I can’t think of a scenario where I, as a student, would feel comfortable going to a professor and saying, ‘Hey, I don’t agree with using this proctoring service, I want you to disable it for our exam,’” Benjamin said.

Furthermore, Grama said, maintaining academic integrity doesn’t seem like a fair trade if you’re forced to give a piece of software access to your whole life. “Nobody is saying academic integrity isn’t a problem,” Grama said. “Sure they want to stop students from cheating, but these apps have access to all the files on your computer, and the privacy settings on your browser, and access to your camera and microphone.”

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