Last week, five Senators joined the chorus of privacy advocates, students, and teachers expressing concern over surveillance proctoring apps being used to watch students remotely during exams. “You must be able to demonstrate that you are respecting students’ privacy,” the Senators write–and so far, that just doesn’t seem to be the case. Additionally, the letter notes that proctoring app features “have flagged individuals with disabilities or physical conditions, such as tic disorders or muscle reflexes, as suspicious,” and the apps’ shortcomings “fall heavily on vulnerable communities and perpetuate discriminatory biases.” The full letter [pdf] calls on proctoring companies to respond to these and other concerns, and describe what processes they are using to alleviate them.
The product is surveillance. There is no improving it.
EFF agrees that these apps pose a serious danger to students’ privacy. Surveillance shouldn’t be a prerequisite for an education. Proctoring apps use monitoring techniques to supposedly determine whether a student is cheating–but in the process, they force students to surrender sensitive biometric information and video recordings of their private spaces. These apps invade students’ biometric and data privacy, and exacerbate existing inequities in educational outcomes, especially for Black students.
While safeguarding student data and improving equity in educational tools are laudable goals, there is a far deeper and more sinister issue at play here—there is a growing student surveillance ecosystem, even beyond these proctoring apps. Other tools that are gaining popularity with school administrations include facial recognition software and applications that monitor student social media activity, such as Bark, Social Sentinel, and GoGuardian. Cloud-based educational platforms and school-provided devices often collect far more information on students than is necessary, store this information indefinitely, and sometimes even upload it to the cloud automatically. Taken as a whole, these apps normalize and codify the use of surveillance in schools. And remote proctoring apps aren’t just being used at the college level–some companies offer their services to high schools, too.
Schools should not be using surveillance tools on their students. We already know that people who are being watched change their behavior and self-censor, and that it breaks down the trust among students, teachers, and school administrations. School should be about learning, making mistakes, and growing academically and as people. This is nearly impossible in a school-enforced panopticon, where every facial expression and movement is monitored by algorithms, with the expectation that students are not to be trusted. We are teaching our students to expect that spying is normal, and that the people they trust to guide their academic success will spy on them.
To Senators Blumenthal, Van Hollen, Smith, Warren, and Booker: Thank you, sincerely, for investigating these apps. In your assessment of proctoring companies’ responses to your letter, we urge you to consider the following: The product is surveillance. There is no improving it.