Proctorio: privacy in an online education

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Photo by Francesca Norman

If you looked at Brightspace before the semester started, you may have noticed a new notification: a document about how to use Proctorio, an online proctoring service. 

I investigated the service and the company behind it, and I found some rather troubling information which led me to believe that Proctorio is, in essence, spyware cloaked under the guise of being an educational tool.

According to Proctorio’s website, the platform bills itself as “a comprehensive learning integrity platform,” meaning that it is a software-assisted online proctoring service for schools worried about the academic integrity of their students in an increasingly virtual educational environment. It is an extension for the Chrome web browser that ties into Brightspace quizzes and exams, offering professors multiple kinds of restrictions to apply to their students. 

Current university policy states that each “instructor may choose to use Proctorio” on a class-by-class basis. Thus, as more classes and tests move to virtual environments, professors who are worried about the academic integrity of their classes can use Proctorio to discourage or catch cheating students.  How, one may ask, does a Chrome extension ensure the integrity of an online test or quiz?  

Proctorio’s features, ranging from the mundane to surveillance state status, implement a number of suspicious behavior flags. The software then monitors student activity during the test and writes a report of any suspicious behavior, which is then sent to the professor, who then decides what action, if any, to take. 

The decision to investigate potential cheating thus lies entirely with the professor, and Proctorio serves as the ever-vigilant watcher and messenger. 

The surveillance features available through Proctorio are legion. 

On the service’s privacy page is a list of browser permissions required to run properly: “read and change all data on the websites you visit, display notifications, modify data you copy and paste; capture content of your screen; manage your downloads; identify and eject storage devices; manage your apps, extensions, and themes; and change your privacy-related settings.” 

The Office of Distance Education and eLearning at Ohio State University details Proctorio’s ability to lock down, record and verify different aspects of tests. According to their document, Proctorio has the ability to record your entire screen based on a number of triggers, including a mouse click, answering a question and copying or pasting text, among others. It can also record the student’s microphone for the entirety of the test. Additionally, Proctorio is able to record the student’s webcam for the testing duration; it runs machine learning algorithms to independently track head, eye and mouth movements in an attempt to catch potential cheating. 

The professor can also enable an option to record the room, forcing the student to pan about his or her room with the webcam. All of that video is, of course, recorded and available for viewing by the professor. Depending on the professor’s inclinations, the proctoring service can prompt the student to do multiple room-pans throughout the test, based on the exam time or on the student’s flagged suspicious behavior.

If these features do not strike you as overly intrusive, then imagine a student sitting in their dorm room about to take a test. Just before beginning, there is a knock at the door. When opened, the student is faced by a man in a suit who introduces himself as the proctor, and then he invites himself into the student’s room.

This proctor tells the student to continue with the test as if he were not there. He walks around the room, surveying his surroundings and taking note of all he sees. He then finds himself a seat on the student’s bed, takes out a notepad and begins furiously taking notes with superhuman speed.

The student’s every glance or utterance is scribbled down. Every time an answer is selected, the proctor peers over the student’s shoulder and takes note of it. If the student dares to look away from the screen for more than a few seconds, the proctor immediately jots that down and once again ambles about the room, looking for anything suspicious that the student may have laid eyes on. When the test is finished, the proctor leaves without a word and places his notepad on the professor’s desk for later review.

Such a situation ought to be considered a gross invasion of a student’s privacy.

If a professor even suggested something remotely similar to what I just described, I cannot help but believe there would be an outcry to the dean of the school.

Yet this seems to be what Proctorio is doing: complete surveillance of the student, marketed and accepted as an educational tool.  

If every other email students receive from the university contains a sentence saying how unprecedented or extraordinary these times are, perhaps ordinary testing schemes ought to fall out of favor. Projects or papers could be used where appropriate. If that cannot be done, professors could have oral sections in their exams to talk to each student individually and judge for themselves how knowledgeable about the topic each student is. Perhaps more detailed or challenging open-note exams could be used.  

I believe in our faculty’s ability to adapt their assessment structure if they are worried about academic integrity, without grossly invading a student’s privacy.

I have two additional concerns about Proctorio stemming from how intrusive its surveillance is: data and bias.

First, Proctorio claims to take user privacy concerns seriously, and I believe that they make good faith efforts to protect the sensitive data being stored and transferred.

However, security breaches are inevitable in today’s world. Every few weeks, another story breaks about personal data from millions of people being accessed and distributed online. It happens so often that we don’t take enough notice; concerns about potential leaks of the data collected by Proctorio are not unfounded.

For example, Proctorio’s CEO recently posted the transcript of a student’s support interaction on Reddit in order to refute a false claim made by that student. While not an actual breach of student exam data, it was a breach of privacy by the CEO which cast doubt on the company’s commitment to student privacy and data ethics.

Secondly, Proctorio claims that their software “eliminates human error [and] bias.”  However, Proctorio uses machine learning algorithms for detecting and monitoring head, eye and mouth movement as well as for some of its suspicious flags.

There is an increasing concern in the machine learning community about biased data producing biased machine learning models, which perpetuate those learned biases through the model’s predictions. In particular, there has been research into, and some high-profile examples of, facial detection algorithms working well for white males but substantially less well for women or people who do not have white skin.

If Proctorio is going to flag students for suspicious behavior based on head, eye and mouth movement, one must wonder if non-male or non-white students would be flagged more often due to failings in the machine learning models running the suspicious behavior detection algorithms.  

I wish to end this article by posing two questions: First, is Proctorio the kind of service that we, as a university, wish to use despite the substantial concerns about student privacy and data ethics? 

Second, would the university and its professors be willing to use this software if there was a reversed version, one that recorded and flagged professors for distractions or absentmindedness while they were grading student homework, and then gave a report to each student to review?

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