The University of Sydney’s choice to use third-party contractor, ProctorU, for online exams has caused widespread outrage amongst students who fear the ways the software (read: spyware) invades privacy.
Downloading the software for ProctorU gives offshore proctors access to personal information and data on students’ computers. Though ProctorU claims it “does not use any student’s personal information for any reason other than the proctoring of online exams,” proctors can access far more information if they so choose, since sitting through an exam with ProctorU involves handing over control of personal computers to proctors.
When using ProctorU’s services, students must present an ID card on camera. ProctorU uses the image from this ID card in conjunction with biometric facial recognition software to confirm a user’s identity. ProctorU may monitor online exams live with a proctor via webcam but the process can also be automated via technology that tracks and records eye movement, noise and keystrokes. Users must then download a program, LogMeInRescue, to obtain “remote support” from a technician. Proctoru disables the screenshot function, the copy and paste function and all sounds outputs (aside from verbal instructions from proctors), takes control of your mouse, turns off any running apps and prevents you from opening new internet tabs or windows.
Users have described having to show a 360 degree view of their bedroom, including each corner of the room in which they sit the exam, as well as the spaces under desks and on the floor. One user reported doing the exam on his bed after his desk was considered too cluttered. This involved removing the bed sheets to prove that no materials for cheating were lying nearby.
Unsurprisingly then, students have heavily criticised the proposal. Our email inbox at Honi has been inundated with messages from concerned USyd students, one of whom wrote “a person in their right mind wouldn’t ordinarily tolerate this level of privacy breach.”
In a statement to Honi, however, the University stood by its position to use ProctorU. “We’re confident ProctorU will be able to fulfil our exam needs, given the platform’s ongoing and similar work with many universities globally. However, if we do experience any technical or other issues we’ll work hard to manage and mitigate any potential impacts as the particular circumstances demand.”
More than 1000 institutions, including hundreds of universities, use ProctorU, raising ethical questions around the broader normalisation of privacy breaches. In 2019, Australia was downgraded by global research organisation CIVICUS Monitor from an “open” to a “narrow” democracy, in part due to severe limits on press freedom and whistleblowing. Mandatory metadata retention laws were introduced in 2015 with bipartisan support. The Greens, minor parties and academics have criticised these moves, highlighting the numerous ways in which law enforcement agencies have abused and stretched the boundaries of these laws since their introduction.
These moves come despite a lack of evidence for growing terrorism threats and statistics which indicate that crime rates have lowered across every major category over the last forty years in New South Wales, except for sexual assault and domestic violence. Clearly, powerful institutions care more about authoritarian regulation than protecting civil rights.
Students need not blindly follow a status quo that erodes our right to privacy and commodifies our personal information. We need to push for alternatives to ProductU: take home exams, online assignments or suspension of exams for some units altogether. The University has previously been more responsive to student complaints over invasions of privacy. In 2017, the University decided against adopting cheating detection software Cadmus, which would have analysed keystroke patterns on students computers. Security concerns have also caused companies like Amazon — no champion of workers’ right to privacy — to abandon their use of ProctorU. Perhaps this gives us hope that USyd too may cave into the demands of (what the university hierarchy views as) customers, or think twice before using ProctorU in future.