Cheating-detection companies made millions during the pandemic, and now students are fighting back
By DREW HARWELL | The Washington Post | Published: November 12, 2020
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When North Carolina A&T State University junior Arielle Brown took her International Marketing exam in September, a cheating-detection program analyzed her behavior through a computer webcam the entire time. After the test, her associate professor fired off a furious email ripping into her class for some "negative behavior" the software had flagged.
"A STUDENT IN 6 MINUTES HAD 776 HEAD AND EYE MOVEMENTS," she wrote, adding later, "I would hate to have to write you up."
But Brown and her classmates weren't about to take the shaky accusations of cheating lying down. They quickly lit up a group chat — "How the hell are we [supposed] to control our eyes," one student wrote — and Brown shared the email in a tweet that quickly got administrators' attention, as well as more than 100,000 "likes."
"It just felt so aggressive," she said in an interview. "Stuff that people wouldn't think twice about in a real classroom was being used against us." (The instructor and school officials did not respond to requests for comment.)
"Online proctoring" companies saw in coronavirus shutdowns a chance to capitalize on a major reshaping of education, selling schools a high-tech blend of webcam-watching workers and eye-tracking software designed to catch students cheating on their exams.
They've taken in millions of dollars, some of it public money, from thousands of colleges in recent months. But they've also sparked a nationwide school-surveillance revolt, with students staging protests and adopting creative tactics to push campus administrators to reconsider the deals.
Students argue that the testing systems have made them afraid to click too much or rest their eyes for fear they'll be branded as cheats. Some students also said they've wept with stress or urinated at their desks because they were forbidden from leaving their screens.
One system, Proctorio, uses gaze-detection, face-detection and computer-monitoring software to flag students for any "abnormal" head movement, mouse movement, eye wandering, computer window resizing, tab opening, scrolling, clicking, typing, and copies and pastes. A student can be flagged for finishing the test too quickly, or too slowly, clicking too much, or not enough.
If the camera sees someone else in the background, a student can be flagged for having "multiple faces detected." If someone else takes the test on the same network — say, in a dorm building — it's potential "exam collusion." Room too noisy, internet too spotty, camera on the fritz? Flag, flag, flag.
As an unusually disrupted fall semester churns toward finals, this student rebellion has erupted into online war, with lawsuits, takedowns and viral brawls further shaking the anxiety-inducing backdrop of college exams. Some students have even tried to take the software down from the inside, digging through the code for details on how it monitors millions of high-stakes exams.
The tension has sparked deeper debates about America's breakneck shift toward education online. Is stopping a few cheaters worth the price of treating every student like a fraud? And how important are any of these tests, really, given the extra stress on students whose lives have already been turned inside out?
Jesse Stommel, a 20-year teacher and founder of an academic journal, Hybrid Pedagogy, that publicly sparred with Proctorio's chief this summer, said he's been flooded with emotional messages from students "talking about the pain, the anxiety, the fear, the worry the students are experiencing around this."
Most of them have gone from traditional tests to high-pressure video exams in which their every move is scrutinized. It's no wonder, he said, that they're fighting back. At the software's core, he said, "the most clear value conveyed to students is 'We don't trust you.' "
The companies, with names like ProctorU, Respondus and Honorlock, advertise a wide range of cheater-nabbing tech that can lock down students' web browsers, track their computer activity or connect their microphones and webcams to large call centers of "proctors" paid to watch the students take their tests. Some companies also offer artificial-intelligence software for spotting potentially suspect behavior, including face scanners to verify a test-taker's identity and eye sensors to flag if they're looking too long off-screen.
The companies say their systems can sniff out many of the inventive ways students game tests, such as looking at wall-mounted notes, copying from other websites or listening to a friend say the answers out loud. With Proctorio, any of these "behavior flags" — or anything a student does differently from the rest of the class, known as an "abnormality" — can raise a student's "suspicion level," which the students aren't allowed to see.
In interviews with 14 students, many of them said the systems also flagged them for lots of harmless little movements, such as when they jot down notes or read the questions aloud or look away to think. Though professors can change which student behaviors are monitored and ignore the systems' findings, nothing is guaranteed. And to defend their integrity, the students may have to prove the high-tech cheating detective somehow got it wrong.
Some students said the experience of having strangers and algorithms silently judge their movements was deeply unnerving, and many worried that even being accused of cheating could endanger their chances at good grades, scholarships, internships and post-graduation careers.
Several students said they had hoped for freeing, friend-filled college years but were now resigned to hours of monitored video exams in their childhood bedrooms, with no clear end in sight.
"You know how in high school, when you'd be doing a test and a teacher would walk around and peer over your shoulder?" said one student, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid academic repercussions. "That anxiety you feel for those 10 seconds? . . . That's how basically all of us feel" all the time.
Said another: It felt like "somebody was watching me just lose my mind."
Company executives say a semester without proctors would turn online testing into a lawless wasteland. Scott McFarland, the chief executive of ProctorU, which works with more than 1,200 schools worldwide, pointed to company data from over the past year saying the system had caught "unpermitted resources" or triggered an "active intervention," with a proctor jumping in to address potential cheating in real time, in more than a million monitored tests. The system, he added, had flagged 247,000 "confirmed breaches of integrity" — or about 6% of their 3.9 million proctored exams.
Mike Olsen, the chief executive of Proctorio, which has charged some schools roughly $500,000 for a year of service, expects to monitor more than 25 million exams across more than 1,000 schools this year. He said that without anti-cheating measures in place during the pandemic, students' college accomplishments would be forever tarnished — a "corona diploma," as he called it, that future employers might find "not as credible."
But the systems' technical demands have made just taking the tests almost comically complicated. One student at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario shared the instructions for his online Introduction to Linear Algebra midterm: five pages, totaling more than 2,000 words, requiring students to use a special activity-monitoring Web browser and keep their face, hands and desk in view of their camera at all times.
To start, students must conduct an "environmental scan" by holding up everything they might use for their test, including their calculator and any scrap paper, in front of the webcam for three seconds each. They must also position a mirror to reflect back at the webcam to prove nothing is attached to the screen; the mirror itself must also be scanned.
Any student wanting to go to the bathroom must first "shout into the microphone: 'I need to go to the washroom and will come back quickly,' " the guide states. Students who break the rules or face technical difficulties can be investigated for academic misconduct.
"The instructions," the student said, "are giving me more anxiety than the test itself."
Fear of setting off the systems' alarms has led students to contort themselves in unsettling ways. Students with dark skin have shined bright lights at their face, worrying the systems wouldn't recognize them. Other students have resorted to throwing up in trash cans.
Some law students who took New York's first online bar exam last month, a 90-minute test proctored by the company ExamSoft, said they had urinated in their chairs because they weren't allowed to leave their computers, according to a survey by two New York state lawmakers pushing to change the rules for licensing new attorneys during the pandemic.
One respondent who said they had used a metal pot wrote, "I informed the recording by speaking aloud that I had to pee . . . I had to keep eye contact with my camera in order to not violate the rules. It was extremely embarrassing and humiliating. Now some faceless [proctor] has video of me peeing while taking the exam."
The lawmakers, State Sen. Brad Hoylman and Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon, decried the test's "profound lack of decency" and said hundreds of others faced technical glitches. ExamSoft spokeswoman Nici Sandberg said that, while stepping away from the camera could have constituted an "integrity breach," all test-takers had been told of "the format and parameters of the exams well ahead of time."
Some students said they fear they could be labeled suspect for movements or needs beyond their control. In a survey this summer by the National Disabled Law Students Association, hundreds said they worried they would be punished for their disability during what one called "the most important exam of my life."
"If we get flagged as cheaters," one respondent said, "we might as well kiss our licenses goodbye."
Others said they worried these systems would deepen the digital divide, because only students with a flawless internet connection, secluded workspace and the right tech gadgets can pass the system's integrity tests.
Sarah Seyk, a nursing student at Sacramento City College, tried her best earlier this year to prepare for a competitive Proctorio-monitored exam. Between shifts in a covid-19 unit at a nursing home, she commandeered the quietest room in the house, her little sister's, and walked around holding up her laptop camera to prove the space was clean and cheating-free.
Once the test started, though, she was kicked out three times, which she partially blames on her tendency of looking off-screen when lost in thought. Each time, she had to reverify her identity and the sanctity of her surroundings, burning vital time.
Proctorio's Olsen said the exam only terminates if a student's internet access drops for more than 2 minutes or if they try to open an unauthorized program. The company, he added, recommends administrators show "increased empathy" for students during the pandemic.
"I didn't want to move my eyes too much. I didn't want to be writing too much. I was just full-on hysterically sobbing," Seyk said. "My poor little sister kept trying to come in the room, but you're not allowed to let anyone in."
Students have increasingly turned to the web to spotlight their anger at testing under constant watch, recording tearful TikTok videos and cataloguing their horror stories on Twitter accounts like "Procteario" and "ProcterrorU." They've also commiserated online over the creepy risks of letting virtual strangers into their home, voicing concerns over whether their proctors might track them down on social media after the test. (One student said her proctor kept calling her "sweetheart.")
But they've also sought to dig deeper into the technology itself. In September, Erik Johnson, an 18-year-old engineering student at Miami University in Ohio, said he poked around the files Proctorio saves to users' computers because he wanted to understand how the company kept students' data secure.
He shared his findings — which questioned the system's depth of monitoring and access to students' computers — in a series of tweets, tagging the university's leadership. "Change isn't going to happen if the universities and your professors don't know about these things," he wrote.
He was surprised to see how quickly the company fought back, pushing Twitter and other sites to remove Johnson's posts. Proctorio, he added, also blocked his internet-protocol address, potentially preventing him from using it for future exams in what he called an "absurd" act of retribution.
Proctorio's Olsen said Johnson made false assumptions about the system and violated the company's rules and copyrights. Olsen said he offered to revoke the ban, which he said the software triggered automatically, if Johnson or the university specified Johnson's IP address. School officials did not respond to requests for comment.
It wasn't the first time Proctorio had responded forcefully to its critics. In June, Olsen waged an unusually blunt attack on a University of British Columbia student, posting customer-support chat logs to a college Reddit thread that he said had contradicted the student's complaint: "If you're gonna lie bro . . . don't do it when the company clearly has an entire transcript of your conversation," he wrote.
But the most bitter skirmish could be decided in court. In August, Ian Linkletter, a UBC learning technology specialist, tweeted links to Proctorio training videos that showed faculty how to watch students' webcam footage — clear proof, he said, of the "emotional harm you are doing to students by using this technology." The YouTube videos were visible only to people with the link, but Linkletter's tweets essentially opened them to public view.
Proctorio quickly deactivated the links, calling the videos "confidential and proprietary," and a week later filed a lawsuit against Linkletter seeking damages for copyright infringement and a "breach of confidence."
Linkletter's attorneys have argued it's not illegal to share links to videos already available on the internet. But the suit's underlying message, Linkletter said, is an attempt to intimidate other critics from speaking up.
"All of us have the right to discuss whether this academic-surveillance software is ethical," he said in an interview. In a fundraiser for his legal defense, Linkletter called it "a fight for the future" and said, "Can you imagine being sued for 8 tweets?"
Olsen said the videos were embedded in a password-protected faculty help center, and he argues that the court filing is meant to defend the company's intellectual property, not silence criticism. "We're not interested in his money," Olsen said. "If we wanted to go after his job, we would have just gone to the university."
The proctoring companies have argued they're a champion for student success and privacy, but many students aren't convinced. Thousands of college students have signed petitions to cancel online-proctor deals in California, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Texas, Wisconsin and Washington state. Others have organized letter-writing campaigns to administrators, arguing the technology is too invasive to support.
Students also have pointed to the companies' troves of personal video data as a major vulnerability for cyberattack. In July, hackers published more than 400,000 records taken from ProctorU, including names, passwords and home addresses. ProctorU said it has since enabled new security measures.
Last month, the parent company of Proctortrack, which advertises "the world's most advanced remote online proctoring solution" and says it verifies students' identities through face or "knuckle scan," took the service offline for eight days after hackers leaked its source code and sent offensive emails that appeared to come from official accounts.
The company, Verificient Technologies, apologized and said no personal data had been accessed. (Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had raised concerns in a petition two months prior about the system's exposure to attack.)
Several students said they expect these systems will shape the college experience long after the shutdowns end. Nearly 60% of the higher-education institutions polled in April by the nonprofit group Educause said they were using or considering "passive video surveillance of students" during exams.
But some corners of American schooling have voiced unease over the system's potential risks. A few schools, including the University of California, Berkeley, have already banned online proctoring due to privacy and accessibility concerns.
The College Board, which runs the SAT college-admissions exam, originally had planned to shift to an online-proctored test but stopped for fear of what it would require: three hours of uninterrupted, streaming-video-quality internet, which many students can't guarantee, a College Board official told The Washington Post. Officials also worried about introducing a huge new burden for students not exactly lacking in outside stress.
Proctorio's Olsen defends the company as an early-warning system for academic-dishonesty violations, saying it's up to the instructor to review the flags and punish or respond in an appropriate way. He did, however, say that "a lot of faculty are overreacting these days," requiring students, for instance, to take tests only in highly controlled areas even though the pandemic has upended their life.
He has also criticized the student backlash as misguided — saying in June that "it's hilarious, students pretending to care where their data goes" — and based largely on "regurgitated" criticism of how the service works. Most students, he said, just need to get used to it: "College is stressful. . . . It's always been stressful."
Students like Ohio State University senior Madison Tracy, who has taken 18 Proctorio-monitored exams, argue the companies' surveillance-or-chaos argument is a false choice. The problem, she said, isn't the cheating; it's the tests. Instead of the closed-book, easily Googled memorization drills proctoring software is built for, classes could offer exams with more original prompts, creative improvisation and critical thinking — no webcam oversight required.
Some of Tracy's professors have already gone that route, using tests she said leave her feeling just as challenged and far less overwhelmed. But for now, Tracy, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, said she has to remind herself before every proctored test that the little techniques she typically does to refocus — such as stretching her arms or looking away — could be flagged as potentially toxic behaviors.
"Half of my brain is so concentrated on not messing up or doing anything wrong or making the wrong move . . . and the other half is trying to actually work on the exam," Tracy said. "I've seen so many memes of students saying, 'Is it OK if I cry in front of the camera?' How far is this going to go?"