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University can’t scan students’ rooms during remote tests, judge rules

University can’t scan students’ rooms during remote tests, judge rules


The court ruled that a room scan violated a student’s Fourth Amendment rights

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Start of the new school year in Berlin
Photo by Jens Kalaene/picture alliance via Getty Images

An Ohio judge has ruled that a Cleveland State University’s virtual scan of a student’s room prior to an online test was unconstitutional. The ruling marks a victory for digital privacy advocates around the country, who have spoken loudly against the practices of online test proctoring for many years.

Chemistry student Aaron Ogletree sat for an online test in the spring 2021 semester. Ogletree was asked to show the virtual proctor his bedroom through his webcam prior to the beginning of the test. A recording of the room scan as well as the testing process that followed was retained by Honorlock, the university’s third-party vendor.

Ogletree sued the university on the grounds that the practice violated his rights under the Fourth Amendment, which protects US citizens against “unreasonable searches and seizures”. The university, in defense, argues that “room scans are ‘standard industry wide practice’”, and that “students frequently acquiesce in their use.”

Federal Judge J. Philip Calabrese sided with Ogletree yesterday, determining that the university’s room scan did constitute an unreasonable search. “Mr. Ogletree’s subjective expectation of privacy at issue is one that society views as reasonable and that lies at the core of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against governmental intrusion,” Calabrese wrote in the decision.

“Mr. Ogletree’s subjective expectation of privacy at issue is one that society views as reasonable.”

Many universities around the world use e-proctoring programs that can require room scans or similar practices. In some cases, students are required to show a live proctor their identification and surroundings; in others, they’re recorded and monitored by AI with “suspicious signs” flagged to professors. Such programs have been controversial among students and have received pushback from prominent digital privacy organizations as well as government officials. The Electronic Privacy Information Center filed complaints against Honorlock and four similar proctoring services in late 2020, calling their practices “inherently invasive.”

The privacy-focused nonprofit Fight for the Future, which runs the website, has called the ruling a “major victory.”

“We applaud Cleveland State University student Aaron Ogletree for suing to halt the invasive and inappropriate ‘room scans’ his university required in order to complete a chemistry test,” Lia Holland, Fight for the Future’s campaigns and communications director, said in a statement. “Let Aaron’s victory be a warning for other universities that continue to insist on forcing such abusive software on their students.”

Dave Kielmeyer, Cleveland State University’s associate vice president for marketing and communications, provided the following statement to The Verge: “As directed by the Court, Cleveland State University’s counsel will confer with Mr. Ogletree’s counsel on appropriate next steps. Ensuring academic integrity is essential to our mission and will guide us as we move forward. While this matter remains in active litigation, we are unable to comment further.”

Update August 23rd, 3:17PM ET: Added statement from Cleveland State University. This story was originally published at 12:31 p.m.