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Photo: HT
Photo: HT

Remote proctored tests raise concerns of data privacy issues and evaluation

Open-book exams could be a better bet in a country like India

As part of a special series for Mint, Devansh Kaushik, a student at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru, looks at whether remote proctored tests (RPTs) are a viable alternative for evaluation as social distancing norms make physically administered tests unfeasible. In the third piece in the series, Devansh looks at why open-book exams may be a better option:

Last week, the premier NLSIU opted for an online, home-based RPT for its National Law Admission Test in order to avoid further delay in completing its admissions. The decision was challenged in the courts on the grounds that it was arbitrary and that the students didn’t have enough notice. Yet, much of the actual controversy centered around the fact that the test was going to be remotely proctored.

Ever since the pandemic made the shift to e-learning inevitable, the big question in academic circles has been whether RPTs are a viable alternative for evaluation. While there are many diverse concerns that this new invigilation format raises, this article will restrict itself to privacy issues.

RPTs are essentially a combination of video and audio surveillance, coupled with facial recognition, biometric identification and remote system access. Exam authorities justify the use of such intrusive measures as necessary to maintain “academic integrity", but students cite privacy concerns. While there have been protests and legal challenges across the world, in India, there are additional concerns because of the absence of a comprehensive privacy law and a data protection authority. When considering privacy, the first question that arises is of ‘consent’. The personal data of an individual should only be collected or processed with his/her consent, which should be voluntary and informed. But can the consent collected from students be voluntary under the present circumstances? Testing authorities made this switch on their own, without seeking formal consent. Even if they did seek consent, the imbalance in their relative authority renders such consent questionable.

The privacy implications of a typical RPT are significant in terms of the quantum and nature of data collected and shared with third-party service providers. This includes names, locations, contact details, personal space scans and biometric records. Such sensitive data if retained, leaked or misused could result in identity fraud and profiling.

Under the draft Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, biometric data is classified as ‘sensitive personal data’ and is subject to stringent protections such as ‘explicit consent’ requirements and curbs on third-party sharing. For minors, the bill requires parental consent and prescribes higher fiduciary obligations for data processing. There are also cybersecurity concerns. Test takers have to install third-party software that needs to be given system access, supposedly to prevent cheating. Such software can be exploited by hackers.

In the case of large-scale exams, where the number of candidates far exceed the available invigilators, the use of artificial intelligence for proctoring becomes unavoidable.

But AI proctoring comes with its own concerns. For instance, AI uses facial recognition, which is known to be less effective with dark-skinned individuals.

Subjecting students with disabilities, medical conditions or imperfect technical access to such automatic decision-making can lead to unfair outcomes.

All things being said, deploying RPTs in India may be sub-optimal, considering the limited internet penetration, poor digital literacy, backward classes and the rural populace. While there is no denying that testing authorities should take all possible steps to address concerns of integrity, perhaps it’s time for educators to think in terms of alternatives such as open-book exams that take advantage of the intrinsic motivation of students, instead of policies based on surveillance and suspicion.

The series will continue online.

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