Wednesday 23 September 2020

Big Brother is watching you take an exam: students protest at online surveillance

Exam rooms are empty this year. Photo: Depositphotos.com

Students at Tilburg University are up in arms about the system they are being required to use to take online exams, arguing that it is privacy sensitive and they are not being offered any alternative.

Over 3,300 Tilburg students have so far signed a petition calling for a rethink about the use of an online supervision system which will ‘monitor and analyse our entire screen, searches, eye movements, sound and microphone’.

In addition, the students say, they are being asked to provide ‘a thorough room scan, by uploading a video/webcam recording of our bedroom/studyroom/whatever room we will be taking the exam in’.

The university itself says the system is ‘far from ideal’ but that it is the ‘lesser of two evils’ given 130,000 exams have to be taken before the start of the new academic year.

Algorithms

Eindhoven University technology law professor Jan Smits told the Volkskrant that the information which can be gleaned from the uploads are ‘super for companies such as Google and Facebook to improve their algorithms.’

In addition, he points out, the American companies which universities are turning too for capacity reasons are not bound to comply with EU privacy legislation.

The Dutch university association issued a statement on Monday saying that the providers of online exam monitoring have been checked for compliance with the EU’s GDPR privacy legislation and that ‘personal information will not be kept longer than necessary’.

Technical problems

Students also say they are not being offered an alternative to the online monitoring and that students without a laptop with microphone or stable internet are  being disadvantaged.

Foreign students who have gone back home face additional problems with time zones, they argue.

Tilburg’s rector Klaas Sijtsma told university news website Univers that digital surveillance is necessary to protect the value of diplomas and that not all exams will be taken digitally.

Asked about the technical issues which some students could face he said: ‘Students know in advance when an exam is due, so we hope they have the opportunity to borrow a computer from someone or find a quiet place somewhere.’

The university is also in talks with the education ministry about setting up computers on campus for students who have no alternative, he said.

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