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Privacy group files complaint against five online test-proctoring services

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‘Forcibly collecting personal information from test-takers is inherently invasive’

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Kamen, 9, attends an online class at his home in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Photo by NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP via Getty Images

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has filed a complaint with the DC Attorney General’s office against five online test-proctoring services: Respondus, ProctorU, Proctorio, Examity, and Honorlock. EPIC claims that the firms violate the privacy rights of students.

The five companies sell software designed to prevent cheating in online tests and exams. Some are designed to track applications that are running on test-takers’ computers or restrict access to certain programs during the testing period. Others track students’ activity during the test via their webcams and microphones and flag potentially suspicious behavior to their instructor, using either algorithms or live monitoring. In some cases, test-takers need to show a proctor their surroundings and verify their identity with personal information before the test can begin.

These methods — the collection of personal information and the use of “secret algorithms” — amount to “unfair and deceptive trade practices,” EPIC argues.

“Respondents’ collection of sensitive personal information, including biometric data, is unjustified, excessive, and harmful to students who have no meaningful opportunity to opt out of such systems,” the complaint further reads. “Forcibly collecting personal information from test-takers, including sensitive biometric data, is inherently invasive.”

The use of remote test-proctoring services has skyrocketed with this year’s rise in online instruction at all grade levels. So, too, has scrutiny on its providers. Proctorio (one of EPIC’s targets, which over 400 universities use) came under fire earlier this year for its suite of “machine learning and advanced facial detection technologies,” which monitor the position of a student’s head while they take their test and flags possible signs of cheating. Critics called the service discriminatory, anxiety-provoking, and an invasion of privacy. Thousands of students have signed petitions and open letters calling on their schools to get rid of the service.

Examity, which provides live proctors who watch test-takers through their webcams, has also been unpopular on some campuses. “Every student I know finds this the creepiest thing ever,” one University of Arizona student said of the service.

The attorney general will need to act on EPIC’s complaint for it to result in any charges. But the group has made clear that it’s not backing down. It’s also sent letters to all five companies warning them that it’s prepared to sue unless they agree to “limit their collection of personal data, comply with basic requirements for trustworthy AI, and submit to annual third-party audits.”