Increased Use of Proctoring Services Leads to Questions on Student Privacy

Updated: Mar 19

Ryan Stanley • Staff Writer

laptop with ProctorU on screen
Image Courtesy of Ryan Stanley

Opening Canvas, the “start quiz” button looms. To reach this point, Michael Sellers drives over 45 minutes because his test requires a secure, high-speed internet connection – something not readily available at his rural East Texas home.

In the age of asynchronous and hybrid classes, more and more universities have partnered with ProctorU to combat cheating. No doubt, online exams with no proctor and a generous time limit lead to increased cheating, but the alternatives such as ProctorU come at a cost.

Before starting a ProctorU exam, students must share their screen, have access to high-speed internet, turn on their webcam and microphone, agree to ProctorU’s terms and conditions, take two photos (one of the student’s face and another with their face and a valid ID), and ensure a quiet test-taking environment. Once the exam begins, students are recorded and reminded by the omnipresent “camera on'' light. Too much of a suspicious action will trigger a “flag”.

Scott Dillingham, the Director of the Office of Digital Learning, clarified what constitutes a flaggable offense.

“Professors can identify what activities are allowed on an exam (utilizing websites, books, notes, etc),” Dillingham said. “The software is programmed to identify (flag) certain test taker behavior, which triggers a review process by proctors at ProctorU. Anything that, after review, looks like it does not match with the instructions and environment for that exam is forwarded to the professor for review.”

The extensive pre-exam requirements backfire for students such as Sellers, who find it difficult and expensive to use ProctorU.

“The biggest thing at my house is my internet,” Sellers said. “I live out in the country. I can never connect to it. I have to drive an hour with traffic just to take a test. I’m already paying so much out of my pocket to come and take these classes. Now, I have to pay more for gas money.”

During exams, ProctorU acts as a lockdown browser – meaning the software tracks mouse movement, warns students of opening other tabs, and constantly monitors the screen. For Freshman Ben Tanwar, who has a multi-monitor setup, ProctorU does not work. Tanwar has to either disconnect his monitors, which takes time, or find another device.

“Despite the fact that I have two devices I can use it for, neither of them tend to work,” Tanwar said. “What that ends up meaning is applying a third device, which just makes studying for exams that more annoying.”

While using their software, ProctorU collects information (according to their privacy policy) such as the student’s IP address, browser type, browser plug-in, internet service provider, operating system, and clickstream data. The collected information helps ProctorU complete their main service – safe proctoring – but also raises questions about third party sharing. The second bolded sentence in ProctorU’s privacy policy claims they do not sell personal information to third parties.

However, under the “Third Party Sharing” subheading, ProctorU will “share your personal information with these third-parties only to the extent necessary for them to perform the functions we have requested”.

When asked to clarify on this statement, specifically who the third parties are and what the ‘extent necessary’ means, Chief Compliance and Academic Officer Ashley Norris responded.

“ProctorU is not selling student information and is not giving it out for free,” Norris said. “ProctorU is a service provider for institutions and testing organizations, who are the owners of the test session recordings for their respective test-takers.”

When it comes to how long ProctorU retains student information, Norris said the school has the final say. Mr. Dillingham further clarified on UT Tyler’s policy.

“ProctorU servers retain recordings for one year in the same format the recording was originally produced, and one year in ‘cold storage’ for a total of two years,” Dillingham said. “Nobody outside of UT Tyler faculty and administration (other than ProctorU) have access to test sessions or recordings, and nothing is shared or retained to be shared at a later date with anyone else.”

As mentioned, before starting an exam through ProctorU, students must use biometric facial recognition software to confirm their identity. However, in some instances, students of darker skin tones were not recognized by the software.

CORRECTION: After communicating with ProctorU, Jennifer Harrison with Pando Public relations said: "It’s not clear that 'the software' that supposedly had this issue was ProctorU software. The Washington Post article linked in that section does not say this issue is related to ProctorU and we do not think it is. That article also ... says the students were 'worrying the systems wouldn’t recognize them.'"

As Dr. Norris mentioned and you correctly reported, ProctorU’s systems rely on humans, not software alone. So, it’s highly unlikely that, even if test-takers “were not recognized,” that it happened on our systems.

“We cannot comment on the facial recognition software,” Norris said. “We are aware that other proctoring providers may use fully automated systems but, in nearly all cases, ProctorU uses trained and diverse human proctors, not software alone, to make decisions in these areas.”

ProctorU’s unwillingness to comment on their facial recognition software may or may not stem from the company’s lack of ownership of the product/service, according to Ms. Norris. However, a precise answer was not provided.

Ultimately, with the rise of COVID-19 and online classes, cheating has increased. The debate over proctored versus non-proctored exams is on-going, and educators are scrambling to create an effective system.

“I can understand the initial need even if it’s a sort of placebo effect where people are much less inclined to cheat if they know something might occur,” Tanwar said. “But with that being said… it does feel a little bit like an invasion of privacy.”

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