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U.S.-based exam surveillance company suing UBC employee for speaking out against its use in schools

With the COVID-19 pandemic making students take exams online and at home these kinds of software have become increasingly popular
School exams
Proctorio Incorporated is an Arizona-based software company that analyzes students as they take exams to establish a "suspicion level" based on data collected.

For one University of British Columbia staff member, the last seven months have been embroiled in a lawsuit, questions over the ethics of student surveillance, tens of thousands in legal bills, and the fight for freedom of speech.

It all started when Ian Linkletter, a learning technology specialist in the Faculty of Education at UBC, posted to his Twitter account eight tweets over three days last August. Seven of these tweets contained links to -- and criticism of -- seven publicly accessible instructor training videos belonging to Proctorio Incorporated.

Proctorio is a program that monitors students while they take online exams. Instructors set what behaviours they want flagged as unusual activities and Proctorio’s algorithms analyze recordings of a students’ webcam, microphone, screen, any keyboard activity or websites visited. Using that data Proctorio generates a “suspicion level” for each student and reports that back to the instructors with the goal of reducing cheating during exams.

With the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic causing many students to learn from home this kind of software has become increasingly popular over the last year.

In Linkletter’s tweets, he criticized how the software’s algorithms flag students for “abnormal” behaviour during exams and soon after the videos disappeared. The eighth tweet was a screenshot showing how Proctorio had removed them. A month later Linkletter learned he was being sued by Proctorio for breach of confidence, copyright infringement, and circumvention of technological protection measures. 

Lawsuit 'filed for the sole purpose of silencing me': UBC employee

“This lawsuit is meritless and was filed for the sole purpose of silencing me. This is wrong. Proctorio says I have caused the company irreparable harm,” Linkletter wrote in a GoFundMe campaign to cover the legal costs incurred by the suit. “I believe I am preventing harm to students. Sharing information about how Proctorio works informs the public interest. We have to know this information to be able to discuss the ethics, efficacy, and harms of academic surveillance.”

The B.C. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear Linkletter’s application to dismiss Proctorio’s lawsuit against him on April 29. Linkletter is going to argue that the lawsuit against him is a “SLAPP”, or “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation” which are largely considered to impede freedom of speech.

In an update posted to his GoFundMe page Tuesday, Linkletter says his legal bills have exceeded $100,000 and that with Proctorio’s most recent move they are trying to bankrupt him entirely. Linkletter’s update announced that Proctorio is trying to expand their lawsuit against him before his anti-SLAPP application can be heard. 

He writes that on March 18 he was cross-examined for four hours on his application to dismiss the “SLAPP” suit.  He says now Proctorio has applied for a court order to interview him again, which in his view is a tactic to “punish” him.

Now Linkletter is hoping for a full court hearing in July. To find more details on the case Linkletter has provided his defence documents online for public viewing. 

This is not the only university that has seen pushback against Proctorio’s program. Last week U.K.-based Warwick Business School cancelled its trial following a petition that deemed Proctorio’s practices “discriminatory and ableist”. Radboud University in the Netherlands also announced it will not be using Proctorio’s program in the next academic year due to “privacy concerns” adding that it was a “last resort” for exams that couldn’t be administered any other way.

Vancouver Is Awesome reached out to both Proctorio and UBC for comment. The university refused to comment as the matter is before the courts and Proctorio has yet to respond.