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New $32 Fee For Tracking Software Surprises Rutgers Students, Raises Privacy Concerns

Just Weeks After Getting Patent, Verificient Technologies Gets Contract to Provide Facial and Knuckle Recognition Service For Online Testing of College Students
ProctorTrack Petition
Illustration on the change.org petition building support against ProctorTrack software, and the $32 fee associated with it. Change.org

UPDATE (2/8): This article has been updated to include additional statements from Rutgers University's spokesperson.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—As of the spring 2015 semester, students taking an online course at Rutgers Mason Gross School are directed to purchase tracking software that scans student's faces, knuckles, and photo ID's, in an effort to ensure academic integrity. 

The software, known as ProctorTrack, which is owned and produced by Verificient Technologies, costs students $32 per class.

ProctorTrack makes use of facial, knuckle and ID recognition technology, also raising privacy concerns for many in the student body.

The software has only come onto the scene very recently.  Verificient Technologies received a patent for the program on January 6 of this year

"If I had known I would be paying to use ProctorTrack, I would have been more hesitant in registering for any online class," Chao, a Rutgers senior who has started a petition targeting the tracking software.

"This is absolutely creepy, and it probably means you also can't get up to get some water or go to the bathroom which is cruel and unusual," one student who signed the petition wrote. 

"The university has put significant effort into protecting the privacy of online students," said the Rutgers spokesperson.  "The 2008 Act requires that verification methods not interfere with student privacy and Rutgers takes this issue very seriously."

The Rutgers Center for Center for Online and Hybrid Learning and Instructional Technologies (COHLIT) would oversee the implementation and compliance with the usage of ProctorTrack, according to Rutgers spokesperson E.J. Miranda, who insisted it is not mandatory.

"ProctorTrack is one method, but COHLIT offers other options to students, faculty and departments for compliance with the federal requirements, such as Examity and ExamGuard," said Miranda.

He also said arrangements could be made to take the exams in person.

The ProctorTraack software keeps track of all activity in the monitor, browser, webcam and microphone, ensuring that the student does not substitute another test-taker, or engage in another means of cheating.

A demo video on the Verificient Technologies company website shows that the software would use an "8 point system" check to ensure the computer is configured.

Specifically, the essential components would be webcam, keyboard, microphone, mouse, Adobe Flash, high-speed connection, monitor, and a recommended browser. 

The software was tested during the summer of 2014 at the University of Southern California. 

Chao's petition has been signed by more than 550 people in its first day.  

Many of the criticisms around the new policy centered around the concern for privacy, given the extensive monitoring capabilities of the software.

Chao wrote "Rather, instead of actually seeking to learn from online classes, some students will undoubtedly turn to looking up ways to defeat the system." 

Already, one webpage called "MadebyKnight.com," claims to describe how to do just that in lengthy article titled "On Knuckle Scanners and Cheating – How to Bypass Proctortrack."

"Webcam video during an online exam is not streamed to anyone," said the Rutgers spokesperson.

"If students are concerned about being on a web camera while taking an exam, they can work with their instructor to agree on an alternative way to take the exam (ex.: come to campus for a live, proctored exam), or consider taking the course in a traditional classroom setting."

University spokesperson E.J. Miranda maintained that the implementation of such technology was be to ensure that Rutgers follows U.S Department of Education standards regarding the administering of online tests.

"Federal law requires institutions to ensure online students authenticate their identities through secure log-ins and passwords, proctored exams and “new identification technologies and practices as they become widely accepted", Miranda added.

Online classes fall into the category of "distance education programs," according to the federal government.

Seven years ago, Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, authorizing the U.S Department of Education to outline numerous recommendations on how institutions should administer online classes.

The law recommended that a systemic approach be deveoped to ensure that the student taking exams and submitting projects is the same as the student who receives the final grade, and that institutions of higher education employ "secure logins and passwords, or proctored exams to verify a student's identity." 

Other recommendations include the use of an identity verification process, and the monitoring by institutions of the evolution of identity verification technology.

Under these recommendations by the U.S Department of Education, Rutgers would technically be within its right to implement the use of ProctorTrack, or an alternative form of identity verification technology. 

However, the recommendations are by no means requirements, and an instutition can decide whether or not to take action.

One of the requirements in the law, however, is that the university notify students upon enrollment of any additional fees associated with identity verification.

The story laid out in Betsy Chao's petition suggests that Rutgers failed to fulfill its obligation of notiying its students of identity verification fees.

"Emails about mandating the use of Proctortrack were sent out during the third week  of classes," Chao wrote.  "It was already too late to drop classes and so, students essentially have no choice but to pay the fee."

Other students signing the petition attested they were not given any notice of the mandatory software purchase, with one student writing that it was not even mentioned in the syllabus.

"If I had known that I would have to buy and download proctortrack before I signed up for my online course this semester, I never would have done it", Rutgers student Alexandra Grambone wrote in the petition.

"I decided to take an online class and was only later notified through email about this absurd development," Rutgers student Raymund Sun wrote.

"Also, my laptop does not have a webcam. Are they asking me to shell out extra money for a webcam too?"