U. online facial recognition system presents major privacy risk

Nothing, If Not Critical

Are you planning on taking an online course at Rutgers next semester? Then you might need to download University-sanctioned software that will track your facial identity, photo ID and browser activity. According to an article published on New Brunswick Today by Daniel Munoz this past weekend, Rutgers University has implemented a recognition suite called ProctorTrack for online courses. ProctorTrack records face, knuckle and personal identification details during online courses. Munoz also notes that the system “keeps track of all activity in the monitor, browser, webcam and microphone” throughout each session.

ProctorTrack’s implementation was largely silent across the University’s online courses. Many students were unaware of the program until the add-drop period had ended. School of Arts and Sciences senior Betsy Chao, who began the change.org petition “Stop Use of Proctortrack in Online Courses,” complained that the University gave no prior notice about the software and its $32 activation fee.

“Emails about mandating the use of ProctorTrack were sent out during the THIRD WEEK of classes,” she writes on the petition. “It was already too late to drop classes and so, students essentially have NO choice but to pay the fee.”

Providing insufficient course policy information during the add-drop period is a serious problem. As the New Brunswick Today article discusses, Rutgers’s failure to notify students about the $32 activation fee during enrollment might violate the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. The University should respond to this issue immediately. However legal ramifications aside, the ProctorTrack system is extremely flawed, the program’s various anti-cheating measures present legitimate privacy and security risks for Rutgers students.

The three-point verification system that the system, for instance, forces students to record their facial features, knuckles and photo ID on camera. However, many students are unsure if the ProctorTrack system efficiently secures recorded student data. The system’s security measures are not particularly clear. Combined with ProctorTrack’s young age — the system was literally patented several weeks ago — potential security vulnerabilities within the ProctorTrack system remain an open question.

Rutgers also seems unaware that visually recording personal identification over the Internet is a major risk. Even if ProctorTrack is completely protected, there is no way to guarantee that a student’s computer was not compromised by webcam monitoring exploitation software, such as Remote Access Tools, prior to ProctorTrack’s use. Exposing personal identification over online webcam for verification purposes may have dangerously unintended consequences.

Likewise, ProctorTrack allows instructors to monitor webcam activity during online courses and record video reports for later review. However, recording students in the privacy of their homes presents major concerns. Are students comfortable knowing that every moment of their classroom attendance is being monitored for future review? What if an instructor steals a student’s likeness or stores photos and images of their in-class attendance? The potential for stealing student identities or replicating personal identification information shown on camera is a serious concern within the ProctorTrack system.

Rutgers University’s new program also uses a “behavior observation tool,” which monitors student browser activity throughout an active session. While this feature is intended to prevent students from using the Internet to cheat on exams, the power that this grants instructors is extremely invasive. If a student accidentally leaves a personal or embarrassing website in their browser during an online course, a ProctorTrack instructor might stumble upon their activity. Monitoring student browser history is extremely invasive and might not be common knowledge to many students utilizing the ProctorTrack software.

Verificient Technologies, the creators of ProctorTrack, also note that the software allows instructors to significantly restrict student computer access during sessions. Instructors can completely disable keyboard controls if an exam only requires the mouse, for instance. Moreover, ProctorTrack can also block specific programs from opening. These restrictions could prevent students from accessing emergency communication programs during online courses. In offline life, we can pull out our cell phones and call 911 if an emergency arises during an exam. But if instant messaging services are disabled during ProctorTrack sessions, and our keyboards are not functioning, we might not be able to IM or Skype call someone in a sudden emergency.

Granted, I understand the University’s concern — if Rutgers is implementing online courses, there need to be accountability measures that prevent students from cheating. However, monitoring and recording our computer activity during online courses is not the solution, and failing to properly inform students of ProctorTrack’s payment fee is only a further blight on a rather terrible product. If Rutgers wants to transition to online courses, then the University needs to hold some inkling of respect for student privacy. Otherwise, undergraduates have absolutely no incentive to sign up for online classes.

Philip Wythe is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in English with a minor in political science. Their column, “Nothing, if Not Critical,” runs on alternate Fridays.

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