US judge rules remote exam room scans as unconstitutional

A judge in Ohio has ruled that a room scan during a remote test violated a student’s fourth amendment rights, which aims to protect citizens against “unreasonable searches and seizures”. 

According to The Verge, Aaron Ogletree, a chemistry student, sued Cleveland State University following an exam in Spring 2021, when he had to show an online proctor his bedroom through his webcam before beginning the test. The recording of his bedroom, as well as his test, was then kept on file by Honorlock, the university’s proctor vendor.

But why was this even happening in the first place? How have room scans become what Cleveland University referred to as ‘standard industry-wide practice’?

That’s all thanks to the rise of online proctoring. 

The creepiness of online proctoring

To understand online proctoring, you’ll first need to understand what an exam proctor is. An exam proctor, also known as an exam invigilator or supervisor, is someone who oversees official exams to ensure that proper conduct is followed. Most often, they watch students to make sure that nobody cheats. Traditionally, proctoring is done in person, and there might be several proctors, depending on the number of people taking the exam. 

Obviously, all this changed over the pandemic. In most locations, exams no longer took place in person but online, marking the beginning of some dubious and widespread privacy practices carried out by an array of educational institutions. It’s pretty hard to ensure students don’t cheat when exams are taken remotely. That’s where proctoring programs come in.

Proctoring programs have been in use for a while but expanded rapidly from 2020 onwards. There is a wide array of proctoring programs available online with varying functionalities. Sometimes it’s an AI system surveilling a student flagging suspicious movements to instructors, while other times, a real person is watching. Typically, students take their exam via an online platform that can monitor their desktop activity, browser tabs, as well as their webcam video and audio. Students are often required to show identification to the proctors, and proctors can sometimes see private information on a student’s computer. Understandably, students and privacy advocates have been speaking out against this for years.

Sometimes, the proctor requires a room scan, asking the student to rotate their camera around their bedroom so that a complete stranger can see their workspace, desk, and anywhere else they could potentially be hiding means to cheat. This is the scenario the Cleveland judge recently ruled on. 

The ruling

Ogeltree won the case against Cleveland University, with Federal Judge J. Philip Calabrese agreeing that the university’s virtual search of his private residence was unreasonable. Calabrese said, “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.”

The takeaway

This ruling is welcome news for students and privacy advocates who have long criticized using such invasive programs for exams. Time will tell if this ruling impacts the use of such software in the rest of the US and worldwide.

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