Online test takers around the country are reportedly getting tricked into using fake answer sites surreptitiously snitching on them to universities, a sneaky practice some education advocates claim amounts to entrapment. In one case, prolific remote proctoring company Honorlock reportedly had around 12 of these “seed sites” linked to its service, with five still active.
Those honeypot sites—first detected by University of Central Florida computer science student Kurt Wilson and detailed in a recent Markup report—lure students in with what appears to be, at first glance, the answer to a plethora of wide-ranging college exam questions. The still-active sites which include “gradepack.com” and “quizlookup.com,” present the visitors with two large buttons saying “show answer” or “hide answer.” Students who click either of these buttons annoyingly aren’t awarded an answer but instead receive a strange digital beeping sound. Dejected, most users will then quickly exit the page in frustration, not knowing the brief interaction served as a spying tool.
The linked honeypot sites can reportedly collect a visitor’s IP address to serve as proof they were trying to search for a test answer online, according to a Honorlock patent seen by The Markup and student media at Arizona State University. Additionally, an analysis of the site’s source code conducted by The Markup determined Honorlock can view a visitor’s mouse movements, what they entered into the site’s search bar, and evidence of where they may have clicked.
Education ethics experts cited in The Markup feared the sneaky tactics amount to digital entrapment. One of the experts, St. John’s University Associate Professor Ceceilia Parnther, said the physical world equivalent of Honorlock’s tactics would look something like teachers roaming a test room and slipping down pieces of paper claiming to wield answers, all but begging students to use them. That environment of inherent distrust and manipulation, Parnther said, could make students feel helpless and actually make them more likely to cheat.
“Students see that there’s an environment where it’s automatically assumed that they are not to be trusted,” Parnther told The Markup.
Honorlock did not immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request or comment.
The sudden shift to distance learning brought on by the pandemic has ushered in a tidal wave of interest in remote monitoring throughout education. A report released last year by the Center for Democracy and Technology found that 81% of teachers surveyed said their school or school district used some form of surveillance software. That uptick disproportionately affects lower-income students who have no choice but to rely on devices provided by school districts, the report adds.
Regardless of how prevalent monitoring software actually is, students overwhelmingly believe they are being monitored. Nearly 60% of students surveyed by the CDT said they do not share their true thoughts or ideas because they believe they are being monitored, while another 80% said they were more careful about what they searched online.
Universities quickly adopted their own pandemic-fueled remote monitoring tools to combat a supposed uptick in cheating despite a chasm of evidence proving the tools’ effectiveness. Though specific software varies, these remote monitoring companies generally deploy a mix of spyware, lockdown browsers, and webcam access to flag questionable actions and assign students a “risk score.” As Motherboard and others have previously reported, the requirements and limitations of these tools can border on the absurd. In one case, students at Wilfrid Laurier University were advised to avoid taking tests in rooms with posters featuring animal or human faces out of concern the tool’s facial recognition algorithm might confuse them for people standing in the room.
Honorlock’s flagship monitoring tool reportedly saw a boom in sales during the pandemic as well. Those tools are reportedly capable of verifying students’ identities through face scans and can even use specific phrases via a student’s computer microphone. Like other remote monitoring services, Honorlock has spurred vigorous debates over privacy and ethics at some schools. Last October, for example, students at The University of Wisconsin pleaded with administrators not to renew the company’s contract over concerns the software failed to properly identify students with darker skin tones.
“It’s a major invasion of privacy, and it doesn’t help our learning at all,” one UW student said in an interview with student paper The Badger Herald. The university renewed the contract despite the student opposition.
Universities could seemingly sidestep all this gargantuan investment in monitoring tools and the predictable public backlash if they simply committed to creating exams with questions less tailored to Google search answers. That, however, would require a somber, introspective look at the pedagogical mechanism underpinning education writ large. Monitoring tools offer a simple, if largely ineffective, escape hatch.