It’s no secret we’re being watched. In the virtual world, websites keep millions of terabytes of personal click and page-visit history. On the street, you can find ATMs and supermarket cameras quietly videotaping passersby. An estimated one trillion photos will be taken this year, many not even by humans, and there’s a good chance you’ll pop up in thousands of them. Even if you’re relaxing on top of a 200 foot tall wind turbine, privacy can be compromised.
None of this really phased me. So what if I appear as some random dude in the background of thousands of photos this year? I have nothing to hide. Hell, I even kind of like my personal shopping suggestions on Amazon. This was until I registered for NEUR1030: Neural Systems.
My change of heart had nothing to do with the class itself. The transformation from happy nonchalance to paranoia occurred in the computer lab, where we were asked to take a pre-test on our personal computers.
The first direction was to download an anti-cheating Chrome extension called “Proctorio.”
The fun doesn’t stop there.
I’ve enabled apps to use my webcam and microphone before, but never to remotely access my computer, record browsing history, and collect my head, mouth, and eye movements. But since I needed to take the pre-test to take the class, I had no choice other but to accept.
My concerns aside, I continued onto the next couple of steps. The test wasn’t for a grade, so I wanted to get through it as fast as I could. All was going smoothly until my microphone wouldn’t connect.
I opened “System Preferences” and fiddled with my settings but nothing seemed to work. Just as I was raising my hand to ask the computer lab assistant for help, a chat window popped up on my screen.
Enter “Jon L,” the 24/7 Proctorio Support specialist.
I unfortunately wasn’t able to screenshot this part of the chat, but I received a message saying something along the lines of this.
Jon L: “Hey it looks like you’re having trouble with your microphone. Do you mind if I help?”
I hadn’t requested remote help or even pushed a button. Jon L. just appeared. He simply knew I was having trouble with my microphone.
I replied. “Yeah.”
Jon L: Ok is it alright if I help you? : )
The smiley face caught me off guard. What kind of tech support communicates in text faces?
Again I hesitantly replied “Yeah.”
To which he said:
All of a sudden the screen blinked black, then applications started closing and windows popped up and disappeared. My computer shut off.
And it turned back on, re-opened the webpage and reopened the chat box:
I was confused. I immediately called over a lab assistant and told him what had happened. My first reaction was, How the hell is this okay?
Upset, I typed:
The first thing I did after I finished the exam was delete Proctorio from my browser. Even if you are not using the service, Proctorio retains a record of the user’s previous permissions to access to your screen, camera, browsing history and much more during the testing period. Despite this, the Neuroscience department did not provide instructions nor recommendations on how to delete or disable the Chrome extension.
After a quick look at the website, I felt a tad reassured. The home page explains that Proctorio does not collect personal information about users, and that it encrypts and protects all data it records.
Searching for more information, I called Proctorio to schedule an interview, and I was put in contact with Jon Lacivita, a customer advocate at Proctorio.
I’ll say that again. Jon Lacivita. Jon L.
Does this company have only one employee?
Jon graciously answered all my probing questions about tracking students and stealing data. It turns out that Proctorio is completely compliant with the Student Privacy Pledge, a third party organization that evaluates companies to make sure they’re keeping up with the latest privacy standards.
I also learned that Proctorio collects anonymized data during the test, and that the instructor is the only entity who can connect the data to personal information, such as name and student I.D. number.
“When it comes to chat and remote access, we don’t get any information as far as their name or anything that is going to be personally identifiable. That information actually stays with the school,” Lacivita said.
On one hand, Proctorio is taking a major step towards eliminating cheating and legitimizing online courses, which have the potential to provide low-cost education to millions worldwide. The service can also provide extremely useful information to professors on which tested areas individuals and the class needs to focus on in order to improve.
In my Neuro 1030 lecture, Professor Monica Linden said the service will save the department “considerable time and money.”
However, it is important to note that we are coming off a year of the worst corporate and government hacks in history. It may be difficult to access Proctorio’s database, but it’s certainly not impossible.
To figure out how Proctorio fits into Brown’s forever-expanding web of third-party computer-related sites and services, I emailed Dr. TJ Kalaitzidis, an Instructional Designer at Brown. He explained to me that Brown did not have a current contract with Proctorio.
“We have not made a decision to support it,” he said. “Since this is a pilot, there is no contract and we are not maintaining any data.”
Computers hold a goldmine of vulnerable personal information, especially as more aspects of day-to-day life are handled electronically. Proctorio is committed to protecting the privacy of its users, but a hack of its data and abilities is not out of the question and could be catastrophic.
As Brown decides whether to contract out Proctorio, or any program like it, we must weigh the protections against cheating and the saved time and money against possible intrusions of student privacy.
And at the end of the day, how hard is it to proctor a test in person?
Update Feb. 24, 2016: Users who downloaded the Proctorio Chrome extension in 2016 were presented with text stating that the extension can:
- Read and change all your data on the websites you visit
- Capture content of your screen
- Manage your downloads
- Manage your apps, extensions and themes
Update Aug. 27, 2018: This post has been clarified to reflect the stated capabilities of Proctorio’s extension. Proctorio has stated that its extension cannot access a user’s personal files, exercise complete control over a user’s personal computer or remotely turn off a computer. The revised post also reflects that while Proctorio retains a record of permissions to perform certain actions while the service is not being used, the company has stated that the extension does not actually perform such actions when not in use. The revised post also clarifies that a list of actions the Proctorio Chrome extension said it could perform was accurate as of February 2016. Two images have been removed from the post to better represent the stated capabilities of Proctorio’s extension.