Online Proctoring Programs Try to Detect Cheating Through Machine Learning, So You Can Imagine What They Get Wrong

Katie Deighton, Wall Street Journal:

Millions of college students facing final exams, professionals pursuing new qualifications and others were asked to take important tests at home using programs such as ProctorExam, Proctorio and ProctorU—software designed to fight cheating by getting a human or machine to remotely watch for suspicious behavior in test takers’ faces, rooms and audio levels.


One criticism leveled at Proctorio, which uses machine-learning technology to monitor a student’s behavior during a test, is that its system sometimes fails to detect the faces of users with darker skin tones, prompting concerns that these students may be unable to begin an exam. Mr. Olsen said the software occasionally fails to pick up students’ faces if they are in badly lighted spaces, but a human member of Proctorio’s support team can assist and admit test takers into an exam if the software has issues detecting their face in the pre-check process.


Some users reported trouble getting digital proctoring software to install or function properly on their devices, often because of technical issues such as an unstable internet connection.

Via D’Arcy Norman, who was interviewed by Deighton and whose full response is worth reading:

There is a fundamental problem with how online exam proctoring software is designed. This problem involves issues of power, control, consent, and agency. The concept itself puts students and instructors into an adversarial relationship, with students framed as assumed cheaters, and instructors as police or security analysts trying to catch the students. This can’t be resolved through interface tweaks or streamlined installation processes – the problem is the nature of the software, not the design of the interface or user experience.

This reminds me of the surveillance applications some employers require staff to install while working from home. People are sometimes going to do things while on the clock or at school that they should not be doing, but it is not solved by assuming people are unworthy of trust.

Update: Via a reader, another story about Proctorio. Joe Mullin of the Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Given these invasions, it’s no surprise that students and educators are fighting back against these apps. Last fall, Ian Linkletter, a remote learning specialist at the University of British Columbia, became part of a chorus of critics concerned with this industry.

Now, he’s been sued for speaking out. The outrageous lawsuit — which relies on a bizarre legal theory that linking to publicly viewable videos is copyright infringement — will become an important test of a 2019 British Columbia law passed to defend free speech, the Protection of Public Participation Act, or PPPA.