Proctoring: How in Times of Crisis, Student Surveillance Becomes a Real Option

March 16th 2020 The Netherlands went into a semi-lock down. Schools and universities had to close because of the strict regulations to prevent the Covid-19 from spreading. Universities had to make a quick transition to digital alternatives in order to be able to continue courses and tutoring. That went pretty smooth, besides the concerns about online tools such as Zoom. Next matter: what about the exams? Universities are searching for a way to let the exams follow through just as planned. And they’re learning about online possibilities such as proctoring, which is a heavy instrument to monitor students while making exams at home. Lot’s of ethical concerns rise while looking at this tool.

In this article I will give you an overview of what kind of ethical questions arise. I will give a suggestion on how to handle this with care.


Proctoring is an online tool that monitors the student while making an online exam (at home). The tool needs access to the camera of the student in order to monitor eye movement. The tool also monitors the key strokes and in some cases it’s needed for the student to set up a (phone) camera at the rear of it’s exam setting to check the rest of the room. There are two options how the recordings are being used by the proctor. First, a human checks random feeds delivered by the tool and checks in high speed if there is any act of misdemeanor.  Second (and most used) is automated proctoring, where the software marks and registers suspicious (read: deviant behavior), which will afterwards be checked by a human proctor.

Online proctoring is nothing new. In 2016 Surf, a Dutch cooperation for digitization of education and research,  held a seminar on the benefits and concerns of the usage of proctoring. One of their recommendations was, apart from the obvious request to be compliant to the GDPR (to give permission freely or when not given, not be confronted with negative consequences), that the institution must always provide an alternative as well, for example that the test is taken in a physical facility of the university itself.

You can see, that thát alternative now, is something that is hard to live by. At the University of Amsterdam, Tilburg and Leiden students and student councils are making formal complaints about the usage of proctoring, specifically because their universities do not provide such an alternative to the online testing and proctoring.

Political questions

According to the minister of Education Ingrid van Engelshoven alternatives are -at this moment- no real option. She mentions ‘because of the Covid-crisis an alternative to proctoring could not be possible. Therefor students, when choosing for the privacy friendly alternative, should take a delay of their study progress into account.’

Before the minister was confronted with questions, the Dutch Data Protection Board provided advice to Dutch educational institutions on how to work online and protect privacy. To sum it up, the DDPA presses on the question ‘is it really necessary?’ and to think of alternatives for taking the tests. Also, they want the student councils to be involved in the choice for this tool. This, proved by the complaints, is not what happened.

A spokesperson of the Univerity of Amsterdam said that because of the extraordinary situation proctoring  is legitimate to use without the students’ consent. The DPO advised for the use of proctoring based on the legal grounds (GDPR) of legitimate interest: to prevent any delay that not taking the exams would cause.

Ethical questions

This use of proctoring leads to numerous ethical questions and consideration. Let me name the pressing ones:

  • Inequality

Proctoring is based on a couple of assumptions: a) the student has a stable internet connection; b) the student has a laptop and webcam of a certain quality; c) the student has a smartphone with a working camera; d) the student has the possibility to (under this lock down regulations) work on an exam at home with full concentration and without disturbances.

One could question if this is true for all students. I doubt it. This means that the use of online exams and proctoring could influence the results of the test and create inequalities between students because of their (economical) circumstances.

  • Free choice

Let’s take a look at the free choice-argument. At this point there are, according to the minister, no alternatives besides choosing to make the exam somewhere in the near future.

This means students have to accept a delay of their studies, which has obvious financial consequences. Not every student will be in the position of making that choice, which makes privacy something for the rich.

  • Chilling effect

The thought of being monitored can influence the way students perform. Their behavior will, somehow, change because they are monitored. This is limiting to their natural behavior and could harm their integrity.

  • Sensitive data

The data monitored by proctoring is very interesting for parties who would like to profile. Everything that is monitored can reveal so much more about the student than seems to be the case at first glance. This tells us not only that the data should be protected  (and deleted asap), but also hów intrusive this method is.


I would like to do some recommendations to Universities, their DPO’s, course coordinators and policy makers.

First of all, accept that proctoring is not the holy grail. If students want to cheat, they find a way to cheat. Proctoring, in my opinion, proves a way of problem-solution-thinking that is not helpful. We have to examine this issue carefully.

Second, this problem ‘how can we take exams when students are working from home?’ should be redefined. The question is not: how can we change our offline behavior into online. But, the question is: what are exams for?  They test the a level of understanding of the students. One could look for alternative ways to test this. As the DDPA suggests: let the students make essays, a paper. This means that the tutors and teachers have to rewrite and -invent their methods of testing the goals of the course, but I think that’s worth the price. It would be silly to let all the load that comes with online working weigh down on the student (and mess up with their fundamental rights) and not be willing to contribute and make an effort as an educational institution. It’s your responsibility to test the students and monitor the quality of education.

Third, go back to the drawing table and talk to all the stakeholders. Students are the most important stakeholder in this case. Take the complaints as a sign that the solution you’ve found is not yet one that meets everyone’s needs.

Fourth, if you really want to proceed with online proctoring, then you should make sure that the student is well-informed (how it works, what are the risks, et cetera) and that the choice free. This means you have to think of (financial) compensation in order to let privacy not be a trade off.

Proctoring is an option, but in most cases not a fair one, if you ask me.

A call to everyone

In times of crisis one can hastily choose for a solution that provides a quick fix. But then, we might wake up from a nightmare, only to see that basic fundamental rights and principles are vanished. Let’s not.

UPDATE JUNE 15th 2020: The University of Amsterdam’s Student Council took the case to court. Last Thursday the judge ruled that “The UvA is compliant to all the rules and principles of the GDPR. The processing of data is lawful because of article 6 (1, e: processing is necessary for the performance of a task carried out in the public interest or in the exercise of official authority vested in the controller). (…) because of COVID-19 it is necessary to use online proctoring (..).”

This article is written by Piek Visser-Knijff. Read more from the author here.

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