We finally know who watches the (exam) watchers.
On Thursday, six Democratic senators sent an open letter to the CEO of the online test-administering company ExamSoft. At issue are claims online proctoring and remote-testing software is biased against people of color and people with disabilities, and that it invades students’ privacy.
“We write to request information on the steps that your company has taken to protect the civil rights of students and ensure that ExamSoft is not creating barriers for students’ futures,” the senators write.
For those fortunate enough to not have had their education derailed by the coronavirus pandemic, remote proctoring may be a foreign concept. It some cases, it literally involves a stranger watching you take a test through your webcam ostensibly to guard against cheating. In other instances, an opaque computer-vision system attempts to detect “abnormal exam-taker activity” — whatever that means.
ExamSoft’s ExamMonitor feature is one such offering. According to the company’s website, it offers a “AI-driven remote proctoring solution that continuously observes exam takers with video and audio monitoring throughout the entire exam.”
The ExamMonitor brochure goes into more detail.
“Once the exam has begun, ExamMonitor captures a continuous audio and video recording of the exam taker using both webcam and screen capture,” it explains. “Once the exam is completed, the exam footage is uploaded to ExamSoft and analyzed and reviewed by a trained professional.”
Allegations that remote proctoring software fails to register Black and brown students as, well, people, have dogged the technology from the start.
“The @ExamSoft software can’t ‘recognize’ me due to ‘poor lighting’ even though I’m sitting in a well lit room,” wrote one student in September. “Starting to think it has nothing to do with lighting. Pretty sure we all predicted their facial recognition software wouldn’t work for people of color.”
The letter signatories — Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Sen. Ron Wyden, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Sen. Tina Smith, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Cory Booker — expounded upon this issue in their Dec. 3 letter.
“Students of color, and students wearing religious dress, like head scarves, have reported issues with the software’s inability to recognize their facial features, temporarily barring them from accessing the software,” they write. “Just as alarmingly, students have reported egregious situations in which monitoring features have flagged individuals with disabilities or physical conditions, such as tic disorders or muscle reflexes, as suspicious, and in which virtual ‘proctors’ failed to accommodate students’ disabilities.”
What’s more, the letter raises concerns regarding student privacy — noting that not only in some cases are students, and the interior of their homes, observed by an “unknown virtual proctor,” but that students must install software on their computers.
“While all this information can be useful for maintaining integrity in testing and ensuring that student needs are being met, questions remain about where and how this data is being used before, during, and after tests, by both your company, the virtual proctors, and testing administrators,” write the senators.
In September, Jason Kelley, the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s acting associate director of research, explained over email that remote proctoring software in general is fundamentally flawed.
“In many ways, [remote proctoring] software is indistinguishable from a different, nefarious type of software supposedly used to detect ‘cheating’ — spouseware,” he explained. “Overall, these tools are far more invasive than necessary, they won’t necessarily detect cheating, and they will likely exacerbate existing inequities in educational outcomes.”
SEE ALSO: Amazon quietly announces major expansion to neighborhood surveillance networks
We reached out to ExamSoft to see if it had a response to the senators’ concerns, and if it intends to respond to the letter. We received no immediate response.
The senators are definitely expecting to hear back, however, and have asked that ExamSoft CEO Sabastian Vos respond by Dec. 17. Perhaps he can record, upload, and send along a video of himself doing so to ensure the integrity of the response process.