As schools go remote, so do tests and so does surveillance
The stranger on the Zoom call appeared to be sitting in a tent. He wore a black headset and a blue lanyard around his neck. Behind him was white plastic peppered with pictures of a padlock.
“Hi,” the stranger intoned. “My name is Sharath and I will be your proctor today. Please confirm your name is Jackson and that you’re about to take your 11:30PM exam.”
“Correct,” said Jackson Hayes, from his cinder-block dorm room at the University of Arizona.
When he’d signed up for an online class in Russian cinema history, he’d had no idea it meant being surveilled over video chat by someone on the other side of the world. Hayes learned about it via an item on the class syllabus, released shortly before the semester began, that read “Examity Directions.” The syllabus instructed Hayes and his classmates to sign up for Examity, an online test-proctoring service.
To create his account, Hayes was required to upload a picture of his photo ID to Examity’s website and provide his full name, email, and phone number — pretty banal stuff. But it got weirder. At the end, he typed his name again; Examity would store a biometric template of his keystrokes.
“THE WEBSITE LOOKED LIKE IT WAS BUILT IN 2008”
“It feels so jury-rigged together,” Hayes says. “The website looked like it was built in 2008.”
A month later, Hayes was preparing to take his first practice exam, with an Examity proctor watching him over Zoom. Hayes didn’t want to download Zoom — he’d heard about its laundry list of security concerns — but it was required to take his midterm.
Sharath told Hayes to share his screen, and then to display both sides of his driver’s license in the webcam’s view. “I need to see your desk and workspace,” the proctor said. “Please rotate your webcam 360 degrees so I can see the area around you.” Hayes complied. “Please take a step back and show me the entire desk,” the proctor instructed. Again, Hayes obeyed.
Then he had to answer some security questions. Chrome thought one of the fields was for a credit card and autofilled.
“Why the fuck did that show up?” Hayes asked.
“First and last name without space,” said Sharath, unperturbed.
Hayes quickly unselected the box, but his card’s last four digits and expiration date had already been displayed.
Finally, Hayes was instructed to grant the proctor remote access to his computer. “Please open your system preferences and click on the lock icon,” the proctor said monotonically. “Please enter your computer password. Perfect. Thank you.”
AT THE BEGINNING OF 2019, EXAMITY ESTIMATED THAT IT WOULD PROCTOR OVER 2 MILLION EXAMS
The proctor entered a password, using Hayes’ computer, and the test — taken online through Examity’s portal — began. Sharath watched Hayes work, through his webcam, the entire time.
“I was like, holy shit, this is not good,” Hayes says.
The pandemic has increased our reliance on video chat, but remote proctoring was on the rise long before the first instance of COVID-19. The University of Arizona is one of over 500 schools that use or have used Examity in some form. It’s not the only webcam-proctoring service out there: other schools use similar live programs like ProctorU, automated services like Proctortrack, or plagiarism-detection algorithms like Turnitin. But while the novel coronavirus didn’t start the trend, it did exacerbate it. Online proctoring has seen an explosion of business as schools around the world are forced to move their classes online; the CEO of a similar service called Proctorio predicted that his service would increase its value four to five times this year.
Examity’s proctors told me they’ve been inundated with new tests since the start of the outbreak, and the company’s CEO Jim Holm confirmed that some employees have taken on additional hours. “We are grateful for our employees and their flexibility in supporting our partners during this time,” he adds.
Examity is one of the fastest-growing online-proctoring services. Employees estimate that the company had around 10 proctors in 2014, but had several hundred by the end of 2015, and it now employs over a thousand. (The Verge spoke to three Examity proctors and one former proctor for this story and granted them all anonymity to avoid retaliation from their employer.) The company doubled in size between 2018 and 2019, and it was named the fastest-growing ed-tech company in North America by Deloitte’s Fast 500. At the beginning of 2019, the company estimated that it would proctor over 2 million exams for higher education alone.
But students aren’t all on board with the widespread adoption of these services, and they haven’t been for over a decade. In 2006, a group of students at McLean High School in Virginia collected 1,190 signatures for a petition against the school’s required use of Turnitin. “It’s like if you searched every car in the parking lot or drug-tested every student,” McLean senior Ben Donovan told The Washington Post at the time.
“IT’S LIKE HAVING SOMEONE STANDING OVER YOUR SHOULDER”
And in 2015, after Rutgers mandated the use of Proctortrack in some online courses, a group of students revolted, circulating a petition against it that collected over 900 signatures. Shortly after the petition began, the university announced it would offer students the option to take their exams in person.
The University of Arizona’s administrators believe most students don’t mind the software. “They know this is an expectation because their professors put it out there,” says Kristin Ziska Strange, UA’s assistant director of technology and innovation. “It makes some people anxious. We have some students who are like, ‘I hate this, this isn’t cool.’ But most of our students understand that this is a part of what their faculty members want them to do.”
That hasn’t been Hayes’ experience. “Every student I know finds this the creepiest thing ever,” Hayes says. On his campus, he finds, “the predominant feeling towards Examity is ‘Screw this.’”
Takashi K., who requested that I withhold his surname to avoid repercussions from his school, is a student at St. Charles Community College in Missouri who has used Examity for multiple classes. None of his friends like it either. “Anyone I have spoken to about it agrees that at the very least it’s a suspicious or annoying thing they have to do,” he says.
On paper, there’s not much difference between taking a test in front of a professor or TA and taking a test in front of your webcam. “Whether it’s face to face or whether it’s online, taking a test in general is stressful,” says Melody Buckner, associate vice provost of digital learning and online initiatives at the University of Arizona. “Whether it’s a professor or TAs walking around the class watching you take the exam, or whether it’s someone through a computer, it’s stressful. We realize this… and we work with faculty on trying to determine what’s going to be the best way to proctor your students and give them as little anxiety as possible.”
But students who have used Examity say it feels much weirder than proctoring with a professor or TA. They’re being watched closer up, by a stranger, and in a place more private than a classroom. In speaking to me, students described their experiences as everything from “uncomfortable” to “intrusive” to “sketchy.” “It’s basically like having someone standing over your shoulder staring at your screen the whole time,” Takashi says.
That’s not far from what the proctors are actually doing. Tushar, a former Examity proctor who worked for the company from 2014 to 2015, says, “we closely watch the face of the student to see if there is something suspicious, like suspicious eye movements, or if the student is trying to mumble something to somebody else outside the room.” (They monitor one student at a time.)
“YOUR TRANSMISSION OF YOUR DATA TO OUR SITE IS DONE ENTIRELY AT YOUR OWN RISK.”
Proctors also continuously scan students’ surroundings. “If we see any kind of book, if I see somebody else there, there’s a chance the student may copy,” Tushar says. Each time a proctor sees a suspicious movement, they can raise a “flag” in Examity’s system. After enough flags, Examity forwards the video to the student’s instructor.
Examity’s proctors certainly understand that students might find their product invasive. “I feel some type of guilty,” another proctor, Dhruv, tells me — and he believes most of his co-workers feel the same way. Drhuv has seen personal information and messages on students’ screens before. But he still enjoys the work and says he would never share anything he saw. “We all will be careful,” he says. “No problem with that.”
Holm says the creepiness is a necessary trade-off for an effective service. “Certainly, all proctoring environments, either in-person or online, require a level of monitoring that can present discomfort to students, but is critical to ensure the integrity of each exam,” he says. He notes the similarity of the Examity experience to that of an in-person testing center, which might monitor its kiosks with cameras. “We also understand that trust is not given, but must be earned. This principle drives everything we do at Examity, from our hiring and training practices to the technology that enables our platform, to the integrity of each proctoring experience.”
Holm tells The Verge that data breaches should not be a concern. “Examity employs a wide range of security controls — administrative, technical, and physical,” he says. “For obvious reasons, we do not disclose specifics about these additional controls. However, we do invest heavily in continuous development and testing of the security architecture of the Examity platform precisely to prevent such a compromise.”
Harold Li, a security expert who has consulted for a number of large tech companies and is currently a vice president at ExpressVPN, believes Examity’s dangers go beyond technical inconvenience. “It’s a huge security issue for students to be required to install third-party software that they don’t have the opportunity to meaningfully vet themselves, and give a stranger full remote access to their computer,” Li says. “At a minimum, it sets a bad precedent and establishes dangerous security habits.”
Li says Examity’s process is rife with potential privacy nightmares. “The proctoring software could have a security vulnerability that results in a hacker taking advantage of the remote control capabilities, the proctor could use their position of power to maliciously socially engineer the student to allow them to install malware, or the proctoring platform could leak data including student ID cards and other personal information to identity thieves.”
It’s easy to see the argument for services like Examity at a time when over 6 million US students are enrolled in online college courses. I spoke to several students who appreciate the ability to take tests at home due to their distance from campus, familial responsibilities, or other circumstances that make online classes attractive in the first place.
And that does seem to be Examity’s primary mission: to open up online courses to students who couldn’t take them otherwise. “Online education has the potential to dramatically expand access and respond to the needs of a digitally connected generation of students,” Holm tells The Verge. “Our work has always been about validating the learning experience to ensure the quality of the degrees, certifications, and credentials that our partners provide.”
To use Examity, students are required to have a computer with a working webcam, a stable internet connection, and a private room where they can take their tests alone. Those don’t sound like unreasonable asks, especially for folks who are already enrolled in an online class. Buckner at the University of Arizona says most UA students don’t have trouble using the software. “Students know their studies are going to be online,” she tells The Verge. “They realize they have to have certain equipment to be able to do a fully online program.” Buckner says UA students can check out laptops and webcams from the university’s library, and that the school provides a physical testing center for students who need the space. “We are trying to accommodate students as much as we can during this crisis,” she says. “We’re trying to cover all our bases.”
Still, some students believe that the service may cause more accessibility issues than it prevents.
An Examity portal
Sandra L., who also requested that I withhold her surname, used Examity for a midterm in her astronomy class at Ocean County College in New Jersey. She had never used Zoom before and couldn’t get the program to work on her two-year-old iMac. She had no way to get another computer; the college’s computers had no webcams. Her first assigned proctor was so frustrated that she hung up the call; Sandra called back and got another proctor who still couldn’t figure out the problem. Eventually, Sandra gave up and took a zero on the test.
“Just a real bad experience,” she says. “I would not recommend Examity to anyone.”
She wasn’t the only one. So many of her classmates had similar technical issues that Sandra’s professor decided not to use the program for the final exam.
A Yale student, who used Examity for a summer class, says she spent hours troubleshooting technical issues before she could begin her midterm. A number of her classmates also had trouble starting at their assigned time. For students she knew who were squeezing the test into a lunch break or juggling other commitments, the delays were a problem.
Takashi says the portal has crashed twice in the middle of his testing. After one of the crashes, his proctor called his cellphone to ask why he’d dropped the call.
A University of Wisconsin student says that Examity makes testing especially difficult for parents. Examity requires that students be in an empty, silent room while they test. For the student, who lives with their two young children, this was a tall order. “It is difficult for a non-traditional student to be alone and quiet,” the student says. “I have a family in a tiny home.” The student didn’t protest, but others did; the professor stopped using Examity a month after introducing it.
The weirdness and the technical inconvenience might be worth the trade-off if Examity reliably caught cheaters. While every student I asked said they had never cheated with Examity (or at least didn’t admit to it), they all thought it could be done.
Tricksters across the internet have developed workarounds. One Reddit user was successfully able to keep a cheat sheet pressed against their computer screen, out of the webcam’s view. They were also able to use their phone during the test. When the proctor asked to see their phone, the student showed them a case with the Apple logo and a camera drawn inside, then dropped it into a backpack. “I passed the test and that was that,” the student wrote. “It’s hilarious to think these companies can prevent cheating.”
Other commenters brainstormed a range of techniques. “Print your notes on plastic transparency, the stuff they use for overhead projectors,” noted one user. “Static cling will hold it to the screen.” “49-inch ultrawide with an iPad taped to the right side of it,” suggested another. “Rename your icons with formulas,” floated another.
In 2015, software engineer Jake Binstein wrote an exhaustive array of workarounds, including virtual webcam software, projecting tests to conspirators in another room, and putting the answers on the inside of sunglasses. But his list, he noted, contains just a fraction of the tricks students might try. “If professors think students won’t go to these lengths in order to skip studying — they’re fools.”
Examity’s website says its proctors are required to have “years of technical support accomplishments” and go through eight weeks of intensive training; in theory, they should be catching every trick in the books. This seems to differ from reality, however. The proctors I spoke to said they had no proctoring experience before joining Examity, their training lasted around a month, and it was not particularly intensive.
“IT’S LIKE A DIGITAL ARMS RACE”
The company is headquartered in Massachusetts, but the proctors are in Hyderabad, one of India’s largest cities. There are a number of Examity job postings in Facebook groups for recent college graduates in the area. One, in a group called “Fresher Jobs Hyderabad,” lists “good communication skills” as the sole requirement. (Holm stands by the information on the website. “In nearly every case, we provide our proctors with an eight-week training course.”)
As for cheaters, Holm says that Examity is constantly adapting to new strategies; he notes that the company keeps proctors informed of novel tricks and keeps policies and procedures updated as they evolve. The proportion of cheaters that Examity deters (or catches), however, is a less important question. What is clear is that as universities find new ways to curb cheating, students find new ways to cheat. And as the cycle escalates, invasive procedures and technical requirements continue to stretch beyond what many students are comfortable with.
“It’s like a digital arms race,” Hayes says. “When people find new ways to cheat, you have to find new ways to stop them. But Examity is the nuclear option.”
“STUDENTS NEARLY ALWAYS FIND SOME WAY TO CHEAT”
Gabi Martorell, a psychology professor at Virginia Wesleyan University, believes that arms race isn’t worth the trade-offs. Instead, she says, it illustrates the limitations of tests as assessment tools.
“In my experience, students nearly always find some way to cheat if they really want to,” says Martorell. “I would rather set up a situation where students are less likely to cheat.” She has moved her classes away from multiple-choice tests and placed more emphasis on open-book evaluations, projects, and papers where answers aren’t easily found on Google
But as some professors abandon Examity, others jump on board, especially as travel bans and campus closures related to COVID-19 force universities around the world to scale up their online instruction. Southern Cross University in Australia piloted the platform for its health courses, despite concerns that some students couldn’t access the bandwidth or hardware necessary. Only 20 out of 24 students in China were able to take their scheduled exams, a result the university considered a success.
As classes move online and demand for proctoring grows, Examity continues expanding. The company has hired 150 US-based proctors since the end of March, and 150 additional support professionals. Meanwhile, the pandemic has forced the company to close its office in Hyderabad. Live proctoring was suspended for a few weeks, but the proctors are now back online and working from home. “The scope and scale of this particular challenge for higher education is something that no one could have predicted,” Holm says. “As we navigate this uncharted territory, we are working very closely with both existing and new partners to meet the increased demand.”
The company rolled out a new interface in February, intended to create a better experience for test-takers. Hayes, who took a midterm on the new platform in March, says the same problems persist. And despite their frustrations, he and his classmates assume Examity isn’t going anywhere. “When you’re a student, you have no choice,” he says. “This is school in 2020.”