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The remotely proctored exam that colleges have begun to use widely during the pandemic saw its own first big legal test — one that ended in a decision applauded by digital privacy advocates.
A federal judge this week sided with a Cleveland State University student in Ohio, who alleged that a scan of the room taken before his online test as a measure of oversight was unconstitutional.
Chemistry student Aaron Ogletree took a test during his spring semester last year. Before starting the exam, she was asked to show the virtual invigilator her room. He complied and the recording data was stored by one of the school’s third-party monitoring tools, Honorlock, according to the decision documents.
Ogletree later sued his university, alleging that the room scan violated his Fourth Amendment rights protecting American citizens from “unreasonable search and seizure.” In its defense, Cleveland State argued that room scans are not “searches” because they are limited in scope, are done to ensure academic fairness and exam integrity, and are not not forced.
U.S. District Court Judge J. Philip Calabrese ruled Monday in favor of Ogletree that the room scans are unconstitutional.
“Mr. Ogletree’s interest in privacy in his home outweighs the interests of the State of Cleveland in scanning his bedroom. Accordingly, the Court determines that the State of Cleveland’s practice of performing bedroom scans is unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment,” Judge Calbrese concluded.
Since 2020, COVID-19 restrictions have forced students to take exams remotely, so universities have come to rely on browser plug-ins and other software from third-party monitoring companies to avoid cheating on tests.
Civil rights lawyer Matthew Besser, who represented Ogletree, described the decision as a historic matter in a message on his company blog“The case appears to be the first in the nation to assert that the Fourth Amendment protects students from unreasonable video searches of their homes before taking a remote test.”
Privacy advocates welcome decision
Digital privacy advocates have raised red flags over alleged civil liberty violations by online surveillance services in recent years.
In December 2020, the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint against five popular surveillance services, including Honorlock, for their “invasive” and “deceptive” data collection practices. Fight for the Future, a non-profit organization that created the website BanEproctoring.com, called the decision a “great victory”.
The opinion documents state that Ohio University is not aware of any data breaches related to remote exam recordings and that access to the video is strictly controlled. Cleveland State University has not yet responded to NPR’s request for comment.
The definition of “research” is questioned
The university disputed that remote virtual room scans constituted “research”. He argued that the analysis was a regulatory process unrelated to crime, with an objective of the integrity of the examination.
The scan of Ogletree’s chamber took no more than a minute and as little as 10 seconds. The defense argued, according to court documents, that the scan was ‘brief, revealed only things in plain view, and that the student controlled the inspection as the student chose where in the house to pass. examination and where in the room to aim the camera.”
The plaintiff was free to object to the scan, the defense added. A student who refused to take the exam could still take the test, the school argued, even if withdrawing meant not getting credit for the exam.
The judge disagreed.
“Coin scans go where people otherwise wouldn’t, at least not without a warrant or invitation. It also doesn’t follow that coin scans aren’t digs because the technology is ‘d’ general public use,'” Judge Calabrese said.