ANU exam ‘spyware’ spooks students

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ANU will invigilate exams using remote software, and many students are unhappy, writes PAUL HASKELL-DOWLAND.

THE ANU is facing a backlash from students over the proposed use of a digital platform to invigilate exams remotely.

The university recently announced plans to use the Proctorio platform to ensure the legitimacy of exams conducted away from campus during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students aren’t happy. A Facebook page and a petition with more than 3700 signatures have gained significant media attention.

But the use of technology to solve COVID-19 related challenges has been widespread. So what’s different now?

What is Proctorio?

In essence, Proctorio is the digital equivalent of the invigilators walking up and down the aisles during student examinations. The software is already used by various institutions around the world, including Harvard University and other US universities. The University of Queensland has also announced plans to use a similar platform, ProctorU.

To use the Proctorio software, the student taking the exam has to install it on their computer and allow the program to access their camera and microphone.

A range of permissions are required by the Proctorio browser extension.
Author provided

The software is a browser extension for Google Chrome. Along with camera access, Proctorio requires permission to:

  • access web page content to allow the extension to function correctly
  • capture the screen to facilitate screen recording
  • manage other extensions to monitor other tools being used in the browser
  • display notifications
  • modify clipboard data to prevent copy-and-paste capability
  • identify storage devices to allows the extension to “see” system resources and
  • change privacy settings to allow an external technical support function.

While the provider gives reassurance in each category (and there’s no evidence any of it’s untrue), it’s understandable some students are daunted by the extent of permissions requested.

The second part of the system is in the cloud. Data collected on a user’s computer is transmitted to the company’s servers to be analysed. This could include video and audio recordings, as well as images captured of a user’s screen.

In a statement to The Conversation, an ANU spokesperson said: “Data will be stored in a secure location in Australia. Only ANU staff who are trained in privacy and the use of Proctorio will have access to this data. These staff members are also responsible to the university’s privacy policy. Data will be deleted once exams are over and course results are finalised.”

Facial detection (but not recognition)

Proctorio claims to use machine learning and facial detection to identify the likelihood a student is cheating. It’s important to distinguish facial detection from the more controversial technology of facial recognition.

By observing a student throughout the exam, Proctorio’s system may be able to detect if the student:

  • is looking at a second screen or reading from another source
  • is copying content
  • is being prompted by another person
  • has been replaced with someone else.

Concerns have been raised that the system will monitor keystrokes (typing), potentially compromising students’ personal information.

But an ANU spokeperson said: “Proctorio does not monitor what keys are typed – just that keys have been typed”.

What are the issues being flagged?

Students may nevertheless feel Proctorio is “spying” on them. Any tool that overtly monitors a user’s behaviour, particularly when downloaded on a personal laptop, merits thorough examination.

ANU has released a cyber security advisory statement and privacy assessment that aim to address concerns. The key points are:

  • all data is encrypted in transit and storage, and is only available to designated ANU staff. Proctorio has no access to the student data
  • students may have to show their room to the camera (presumably to verify they are alone)
  • the system doesn’t record keystrokes or mouse movements
  • camera, microphone and browser are used to monitor the user. However, the document does make reference to a rather nondescript “other means” of monitoring.

In a YouTube video statement, ANU’s deputy vice-chancellor (academic) Grady Venville reassured students the university’s IT security team had undertaken a thorough assessment of the software, and were “very satisfied” it met ANU’s “rigorous cybersecurity standards”.

ANU Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) on the use of Proctorio.

This is perhaps not entirely reassuring, given the university’s own cyber advisory recognised its “recent security challenges”.

Can ANU force students to use Proctorio?

ANU, like any university, is entitled to implement assessment strategies it deems appropriate. Given the current situation, finding alternatives to traditional examinations is essential to adhere to social-distancing measures.

The university is somewhat vague with regards to the specific use of Proctorio. In its FAQ it states: “Course conveners will determine if your course requires the use of Proctorio for the assessment for your course.”

ANU has confirmed that students have the option to defer the exam instead of using the software. Those without a suitable device can also use a university computer on campus, or enquire about alternative assessments with their convener. An ANU spokesperson also said course conveners “can use a range of other assessment methods” if appropriate.

Some students have asked to be notified before May 8 (the deadline to withdraw from units) if they will be forced to use Proctorio.

What’s next?

The legal situation is currently unclear. While ANU may be allowed to force the use of Proctorio for exams conducted on university-owned devices, mandating its use on privately owned devices is less certain.

If students do use Proctorio on their personal devices, they may want reassurance their device will be safe from surveillance when not being used for exams.

Also, while ANU offers the option to defer exams, students may feel pressure to unwillingly use the system simply to avoid a delayed graduation.

Paul Haskell-Dowland, associate dean, Computing and Security, Edith Cowan University. This article is republished from The Conversation.

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