Aloha Sargent had been aware of the exam surveillance company Proctorio for years. It was a frequent presence at the Online Teaching Conference (OTC), the premiere event for remote learning educators in California. Many of the state’s community colleges, including Cabrillo College, where Sargent is the co-director of the library, had also begun using the tool to proctor tests during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But this year, when she received an email from OTC organizers in early February that listed Proctorio as a diamond sponsor of the conference, she was shocked. The conference is put on in part by the California Community College system and several of the member schools, including Cabrillo College, decided not to renew their Proctorio software license in December.
The decision came amid a nationwide barrage of complaints from students arguing that the software—which surveils test takers through their computer cameras and microphones, then uses artificial intelligence to measure their “abnormalities”—is discriminatory and a gross invasion of privacy.
Like other exam monitoring software companies, Proctorio has celebrated the pandemic-induced boom in its business. It struck lucrative new deals, proctored more than 20 million exams in 2020 (triple the number in 2019, the company told Motherboard), and now boasts serving more than 1,000 schools and organizations in 170 countries.
But that success has also brought scrutiny, and there are signs that the company’s technology and treatment of critics have soured its reputation. Some of the people most likely to use Proctorio after the pandemic—online learning instructors—say the tool is harmful and not necessary to stop cheating. Schools and organizations, including some of its most prized customers, are also cutting ties and declining to renew contracts.
The day after she received the email from OTC, Sargent stepped down from her position on the conference’s proposal review committee. Several days later, she and Maritez Apigo, an English professor at Contra Costa College, announced in Twitter threads that quickly went viral that they would be boycotting OTC due to its sponsorship deal with Proctorio. On Feb. 23, OTC announced that it had decided not to offer any sponsorships to exam proctoring companies as a result of the backlash.
“We have to have these acts of refusal to use ed tech that harms students,” Sargent told Motherboard. “We had to refuse to participate in and support anything with Proctorio sponsorship. It’s racist, it’s ableist, it’s an invasion of privacy, it creates a culture of suspicion, and it harms students.”
In an emailed statement to Motherboard, Proctorio said that it has “not been made aware of any examples from partner institutions of the Proctorio software perpetuating racial bias or hindering access to exams.”
But multiple news outlets have documented students’ complaints about Proctorio, and since August, the Twitter account @Procteario has been retweeting students who say the software didn’t recognize them because of their skin tone, that it flagged them as cheating due to exam-related anxiety, and that they cried through exams because of the extra pressure imposed by Proctorio’s surveillance.
Within days of Sargent’s and Apigo’s tweets, educators around the world began announcing their own boycotts. Lisa Marie Blaschke, a distance learning educator at the University of Oldenburg, withdrew from an invitation to deliver a keynote speech at a conference in Berlin. Matt Crosslin, a learning innovations researcher, announced he would not present at or attend the Online Learning Consortium’s Innovate conference due to its sponsorship deals with Proctorio and other proctoring companies. And Phillip Dawson, a professor at Deakin University in Australia, said he would no longer submit presentation proposals to a European academic integrity conference due to Proctorio’s treatment of one of its harshest critics.
Educators pulling out of conferences may not be fatal blows to Proctorio’s business, but activism on campuses is now prompting colleges to drop the software.
In January, the University of Illinois’ flagship campus announced that it was discontinuing Proctorio after the summer 2021 term, citing “significant accessibility concerns.” In its statement, Proctorio disagreed with the characterization that the university was discontinuing its license. Instead, the company said, Illinois had renewed its contract through September—the end of the summer 2021 term.
Other customers are leaving more quietly—something the company has either accidentally failed to acknowledge or been purposefully misleading about.
Up until February 23, Proctorio listed the logos of 16 universities and companies on its homepage under the title “Trusted by Top Organizations.”
Two of those organizations, Amazon and Louisiana State University, told Motherboard they did not have institutional contracts with Proctorio. A third, Baylor University, publicly announced in August that it was dropping Proctorio in favor of a competitor. But Proctorio’s website continued to list Baylor as a customer. It also contained a purported testimonial, attributed to the university as a whole, stating: “I like Proctorio because I never have problems and I think that it is a very user friendly proctoring service.”
Proctorio told Motherboard that Baylor University still uses its service, despite the university's earlier statement. Baylor University officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
After Motherboard began inquiring with the organizations listed as Proctorio’s customers, the company removed the logos of Amazon, Baylor, Louisiana State University, Duke University, Texas Tech University, Kent State University, and the University of Washington.
Proctorio told Motherboard that it regularly updates its websites with new customer logos, and that it “updated with new partners last week, well before we were contacted by Vice.” That claim is false. Motherboard took a screenshot of the website on February 22, the day we began contacting the institutions Proctorio claimed as customers, and the company did not remove the seven organizations from its homepage until February 24, the day Motherboard contacted Proctorio.
A spokesperson from Duke University told Motherboard that the school had never had a contract with Proctorio. In fact, the university had published an academic integrity guide explicitly criticizing proctoring software.
“Proctoring services essentially bring strangers into students’ homes or dorm rooms—in places students may not be comfortable exposing,” the guide reads. “These violations of privacy perpetuate inequity through the use of surveillance technologies.”
At Proctorio’s request, an official from Louisiana State University-Shreveport emailed Motherboard to clarify that it was the school that had a contract with Proctorio. The Shreveport campus has about 8,500 students, far less than the 31,500-student flagship campus, in Baton Rouge, that Proctorio appeared to be advertising.
Victor Balta, a spokesperson for the University of Washington, told Motherboard that the school began a six-month contract with Proctorio in April, then received a no-cost, six-month extension, but it does not intend to renew that contract due to the low usage rates among professors.
A Texas Tech spokesperson said the school is three years into a five-year contract with Proctorio and has not begun discussions to renew it. Kent State, through a spokesperson, said it also has an active Proctorio contract, but declined to answer further questions. Duke University declined to comment.
A spokesperson for the University of Iowa, which is also listed as a “Top” customer on Proctorio’s website, told Vice that the school’s contract expires this summer and administrators have not yet decided whether to renew it.
Proctorio is not the only exam surveillance company seeing customers leave. In January, the University of Southern California announced that it would no longer use Respondus Monitor. The school will continue to use other Respondus tools, however. Simon Fraser University said “a clear no to Examity” after trialing the software. And at schools like San Francisco State University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn, faculty and administrative bodies have resolved to never use the tools.
The companies also face a range of other threats. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has asked the District of Columbia’s attorney general to investigate privacy concerns and the “unfair and deceptive” business practices of Proctorio, Respondus, Examity, ProctorU, and Honorlock. EPIC has also threatened to sue the companies if they don’t reform their business practices.
A group of six senators has also demanded that Proctorio, ProctorU, and ExamSoft address “alarming equity, accessibility, and privacy issues.”
And civil rights and privacy advocates, in partnership with parents, are targeting Proctorio’s recently announced partnership with McGraw-Hill, one of the country’s biggest educational textbook and software publishers. After sending McGraw-Hill an open letter opposing the deal with signatures from more than 2,000 parents, representatives from Fight for the Future and ParentsTogether spoke with the publisher in January to express their opposition.
“They insisted in that call that the reason they were offering Proctorio was because of the overwhelming demand of faculty at universities,” Lia Holland, the campaigns and communications director for Fight for the Future, told Motherboard.
McGraw-Hill is “aware of the questions that have been raised” but intends to continue its partnership with Proctorio, which is currently working with “reputable third parties” to investigate the concerns that have come to light, spokesperson Tyler Reed told Motherboard. Many educators who use McGraw-Hill find proctoring services like Proctorio “useful, if not essential,” he added.
Proctorio said that in September it contracted BABL AI to audit its algorithms and the non-profit My Blind Spot to examine its accessibility issues. But algorithmic auditing is a relatively new industry, and critics have accused companies of cherry-picking from audit reports to support their public image.
Apigo, from Contra Costa College, told Motherboard she’s been contacted in recent days by people from a number of other schools seeking advice on developing guidelines to restrict the use of proctoring software. “I think this semester, it’s starting to gain more momentum,” she said.