Watching through the webcam: Ontario and ProctorTrack’s attempt at academic integrity

Ontario universities and colleges are adapting to COVID-19—even if it means sacrificing their students’ private information. 

Due to COVID-19, the majority of Ontario universities are only offering remote learning, administering their classes online. 

As in-person examinations for the Fall 2020 semester are unlikely, the Ontario government and eCampusOntario—a non-profit aimed at increasing the availability of online learning—have provided access to the online proctoring service ProctorTrack. Available to all of Ontario’s 44 public universities and colleges, ProctorTrack is an artificial intelligence (AI) assisted proctoring service that monitors students while they write exams.

With access to the student’s computer, webcam, and microphone, ProctorTrack records audio and video of students taking exams to ensure academic integrity. By monitoring eye movements and keystrokes, and scanning knuckles, hands, and faces, ProctorTrack is able to flag students suspected of cheating, and the footage can later be reviewed by the professor. 

Verificient Technologies, the owner of ProctorTrack, did not respond to The Pigeon’s request for comment.

The US-based company also collects personal information, like a student’s name, address, and photo identification, to verify their identity. Biometric data is kept by the company for up to 180 days after a test is written, and data collected for identification purposes is kept for up to two years.

Dina Kamal, a partner and innovation leader at Omnia AI, Deloitte’s artificial intelligence company, specializes in risk advisory and cyber security. When asked if the information provided by the user would be stored safely, Kamal stressed the importance of secure servers.

“The question is, how [is ProctorTrack] securing this information?” Kamal said. “It depends on who has access [and] what the servers are like. Everything is [saved through either] your password, which is easily hackable, or two-factor authentication.” 

“If you don’t have these factors in place, it is easier to hack these systems.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online proctoring use has increased. According to an April Educause poll, over 50 per cent of the post-secondary institutions surveyed were using an online proctoring service. The change to online learning has also seen a worldwide surge in academic cheating.

“It’s insanity,” Mike Olsen, CEO of Proctorio—the University of British Columbia’s choice for proctoring online examinations—said in an interview for The Washington Post. “I shouldn’t be happy. I know a lot of people aren’t doing so well right now, but for us—I can’t even explain it. We’ll probably increase our value by four or five times just this year.”

Students fight back

The collection and storage of private information by third parties sparked uproar from students around the province. petitions have been created by students at York University and Lakehead University asking administrators to discontinue the use of e-proctoring systems. The petitions have collected a total of 950 signatures.  

“Data is worth something and it can be sold to anyone if this information was breached,” wrote Hassan El-Assily in Lakehead’s petition. “We recognize that the outcome of this ‘test’ to use ProctorTrack will lead to the eventual adoption of a very intrusive and insecure data collection service in an attempt to thwart a minor group of the student population that so happens to be dishonest.”

Concerns have also been raised about access to the equipment required for ProctorTrack to work. 

York University’s administration acknowledged that some students may not have access to the required equipment, like a computer or webcam, and asked for students to arrange to pick up a computer from the university’s IT desk. 

As Ontario was still in Stage 1—where the only businesses open were essential services—when this announcement was made, it violated the COVID-19 guidelines recommended by public health officials, therefore potentially putting students at risk.

Following backlash from the student body, York’s Liberal Arts and Professional Students Faculty discontinued the use of ProctorTrack, with the rest of the university following suit. Some engineering courses at Lakehead also discontinued the use of ProctorTrack to conduct exams. 

While student concerns regarding ProctorTrack may have been heard, concerns about the price of tuition for online learning are being brought up as well. 

Although there have been petitions across the country to reduce the rates of tuition which have garnered thousands of signatures, institutions including the University of British Columbia, Western University, and McGill University have all stated that the price of tuition will remain unchanged in the fall. 

Other institutions, like Dalhousie University and the University of Manitoba, have actually raised tuition for the upcoming school year to account for costs associated with remote learning.

“Transition to virtual delivery of some programs has not changed the amount that we are investing to ensure academic integrity and quality for our students,” Western wrote in their FAQ about COVID-19.

Not a lone case

ProctorTrack is far from the only problematic online learning tool. On June 27, Proctorio’s CEO came under fire regarding user security. As reported by The Ubyssey, Olsen leaked a UBC student’s private chat information on Reddit after the student claimed Proctorio’s user support system did not address concerns the student had during an online test.

“If you’re going to lie bro […]  don’t do it when the company clearly has an entire transcript of the conversation,” Olsen replied to his post, under the username artfulhacker. “Shame on you.”

While Olsen did not break any privacy laws, concerns have risen over the safety of students’ private information. “If they’re [going to] start leaking my private chat logs I’m [kind of] scared,” Reddit user pacertest1 said. “Don’t hurt me Proctorioassist.” 

Proctario is not currently being used by any Ontario universities or colleges.

Also under fire for privacy concerns is Zoom, a popular video conferencing app that many schools use for online classes. A growing number of “Zoom-bombings” have sparked issues for both users and the FBI. Zoom-bombings have involved hackers crashing Zoom calls to speak profanely or spread pornographic images. 

Zoom has since released Zoom 5.0, which includes new privacy controls and encryption in order to combat these hackers.

“[The hackers] motivation is the ability to create chaos,” Kamal said. “Some people think they have an increased sense of freedom online, which is quite dangerous. I think there’s more exposure online than in the physical world.”

While systems like ProctorTrack have access to biometric data and student’s personal identities, they do not sell said data to third parties. However, their security system might not be as sophisticated as those who do, like Facebook. 

“Any information you post on Facebook is being sold to third-parties, and, as a Facebook user, you agree to it,” Kamal explained. “At the same time, Facebook as an organization is doing a lot of work to protect their assets against attacks—they have a massive security team.”

“ProctorTrack is not as big as Facebook […] so they might be a little more susceptible to attacks.”

In addition to the concerns about ProctorTrack’s security, the institutions that are using the service are forcing students to forfeit their legal right to sue ProctorTrack if private information is hacked or leaked. Under section six, “Limitation of Liability,” in ProctorTrack’s Terms of Service, Verificient Technologies is not liable to the user for any damages in any circumstance.

While students have no control over the hacking of a site like ProctorTrack, Kamal suggested reading the privacy policy to understand the information they’re collecting from students and what they’re doing with it. 

“You want to understand what the implications are from a user experience,” Kamal said. 

Sarah Wallace is a Culture Editor for the Western Gazette, based in London, Ont.

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