Lockdown Browsers: What that brief mention in your class syllabus means for your privacy

Following the start of COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the country began implementing new strategies to prevent online cheating, accelerating a trend that already existed across all levels of education. Carnegie Mellon was no exception, using Respondus LockDown Browser, which, according to the Eberly Center, is “a custom browser intended to provide secure testing” by preventing unwanted site access during exams. Such policies have continued even after the impacts of coronavirus have faded, with many educational institutions continuing to use proctoring software implemented during the pandemic.

But alongside this widespread use comes a host of privacy concerns. Sean Lawson, a cybersecurity researcher and teacher, writes about some of these alarming trends for Forbes. Lawson notes that these types of software often combine use of the “student’s webcam, microphone, screen, and browser,” or even use facial recognition and eye tracking to identify students and monitor for cheating. This includes making students show their entire room with the camera, or collecting excess data, like their browsing and search histories or keystrokes.

Such features, Lawson notes, border on “spyware” when viewed in the context of cybersecurity.

This level of invasiveness, when it comes to test-taking software, has multiple risks, both in the technology itself and how the perception of loss of privacy can impact students.

The technology itself leaves risky openings. In an interview with the Stuyvesant Spectator, Dr. Sean Lawson of the University of Utah explains that “more intrusive forms of proctoring software are similar to malware in terms of the amount of personal information to which they potentially give access,” which becomes problematic when that data is then stored by companies. Interviewer Maddy Anderson notes that there have been multiple cases of hacks and records stolen from test proctoring services.

Beyond data stored by companies, the software itself can pose problems to the host computer. Darcy Chalifoux, a spokesperson for a new lockdown browser service, calls out some of the harms of their predecessors, including the lack of transparency with the software code and auto-updating that can change access capabilities of the device without informing the device owner first, a harmful opening for malware.

But even presented with bug-free software, students still experience a unique stress from this form of proctoring. To look at the direct student impact, David Balash and his team from The George Washington University and Georgetown University published a paper onstudent’s perceptions of privacy when faced with such proctoring technology. They found that a large percentage of students had concerns with sharing information with proctoring companies, the amount of information collected, and the downloading of software to personal devices. While 63 percent of students expressed belief that monitoring software made them less likely to cheat, many students thought monitoring went too far, considering the software unnecessary and invasive when it came to monitoring mouse movement, eye movement, browser history, and microphone.

Balash and his team further reported that students felt that such uncomfortable monitoring created a stressful environment, where they feared innocent movements would get them flagged, preventing them from performing to the best of their abilities.

Such lockdown systems were created as a way to level the playing field, so that students wouldn’t gain unfair advantages by cheating, particularly during the pandemic. And although the overall success at preventing cheating can be challenged, using technology that limits access to the screen and monitors student progress does achieve that goal, at least to an extent.

The success of the technology isn’t the question here — it’s whether users are fully aware of the risks of using it. The current education system doesn’t take time to weigh these risks in the classroom. Instead, students are told to download the lockdown browser so they can take the test, no questions asked. Transparency on potential issues is important, or else, as Lawson continues, “the real issues of privacy, security, accessibility, and equity facing students” will fall through the cracks.