Anti-Cheat Student Software Proctorio Issuing DMCA Takedowns Of Fair Use Critiques Over Its Code

from the fail dept

As we've discussed before, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many educational institutions into remote learning and with it, remote test-taking. One of the issues in all of that is how to ensure students taking exams are doing so without cheating. Some institutions employ humans to watch students over video calls, to ensure they are not doing anything untoward. But many, many others are using software instead that is built to try to catch cheating by algorithmically spotting "clues" of cheating.

Proctorio is one of those anti-cheat platforms. The software has been the subject of some fairly intense criticism from students, many of whom allege both that the software seems to have trouble interpreting what darker-skinned students are doing on the screen and that it requires a ton of bandwidth, which many low-income students simply don't have access to. Erik Johnson, who is a student and security researcher, wanted to dig into Proctorio's workings. Given that it's a browser extension, he simply downloaded it and started digging through the readily available code. He then tweeted out his findings, along with links to Pastebin pages where he had shared the code he references in each tweet. Below are some of the tweets that you can reference for yourself.


It's important to note that these tweets are part of a regular string that Johnson has put out critiquing the way Proctorio functions. In other words, due to all the consternation over how Proctorio works among students, this is public criticism from a security researcher showing his work from source code that literally anyone can see if they download Proctorio. And, while you can see the tweets above currently, Proctorio initially had them taken down via DMCA takedown requests.

Those three tweets are no longer accessible on Twitter after Proctorio filed its takedown notices. The code shared on Pastebin is also no longer accessible, nor is a copy of the page available from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which said the web address had been “excluded.”

A spokesperson for Twitter told TechCrunch: “Per our copyright policy, we respond to valid copyright complaints sent to us by a copyright owner or their authorized representatives.”

Johnson provided TechCrunch a copy of the takedown notice sent by Twitter, which identified Proctorio’s marketing director John Devoy as the person who requested the takedown on behalf of Proctorio’s chief executive Mike Olsen, who is listed as the copyright owner.

When asked to comment at the time, Proctorio noted that just because anyone can see the code by downloading the software doesn't mean reproducing it is not a copyright violation. And that's true, although quite a stupid bit of copyright enforcement. What Proctorio didn't mention is that this sort of critique and use of copyrighted content in furtherance of that critique is precisely what Fair Use is meant to protect. That the company clearly did this as a method for getting some critical tweets taken down also went unmentioned.

“This is really a textbook example of fair use,” said EFF staff attorney Cara Gagliano. “What Erik did — posting excerpts of Proctorio’s code that showed the software features he was criticizing — is no different from quoting a book in a book review. That it’s code instead of literature doesn’t make the use any less fair.”

“Using DMCA notices to take down critical fair uses like Erik’s is absolutely inappropriate and an abuse of the takedown process,” said Gagliano. “DMCA notices should be lodged only when a copyright owner has a good faith belief that the challenged material infringes their copyrighted work — which requires the copyright owner to consider fair use before hitting send.

Which is probably why Twitter eventually reinstated Johnson's tweets in their entirety, although the message sent to him was that it did so because Proctorio's DMCA notice was "incomplete". Whatever the hell that means. You sort of have to wonder if the incomplete-ness of the notices would have been discovered if Johnson and the EFF hadn't kicked up a shitstorm about it.

Meanwhile, because of course, a lot more people know about the criticism of Proctorio thanks to its efforts to try to silence criticism. Isn't there a moniker for that?

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Filed Under: anti-cheat, cheating, dmca, erik johnson, proctoring, remote learning, remote test taking, security research, software
Companies: proctorio, twitter


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Nov 2020 @ 11:07am

    algorithmically spotting "clues" of cheating

    Which is a fancy way of saying "guessing."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 11:27pm

      Re:

      Or, just as likely, a fancy way of falsely accusing unwitting students who are doing no such thing but now have to fight against teachers who believe faulty software instead of them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Uriel-238 (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 12:55pm

    I think what stresses me more

    is the revelation that we're investing money into anti-cheat software that could be used to make home learning more engaging.

    (It's similar to a complaint I have in AAA games, that every dollar paid to famous actors in mo-capped cutscenes is a dollar not being spent improving the actual gameplay or inserting the story into the gameplay. Some AAA game producers really want to be making movies.)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Thad (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 3:18pm

      Re: I think what stresses me more

      It sounds like your complaint about AAA games is that they're AAA games.

      If you want a game that doesn't have Keanu Reeves in it, there are many, many options out there.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 4:30pm

        Games without Keanu Reeves

        Heh, I wasn't even thinking about Cyberpunk 2077, and not having played it, I can't speak to it.

        I have a love/hate relationship with the Far Cry # series (which is to say the games after the first, which was not open world and was different enough to be it's own thing). Ever since Far Cry 3, Ubisoft has been trying to duplicate the glory that was Michael Mando's steller performance as Vaas Montenegro.

        And whereas the cutscenes of Far Cry 2 were tiny little augmentations to the gameplay (like the many, many first-aid animations implying a Hemmingway level of machismo) by Far Cry 5 and Far Cry New Dawn they had turned into long-winded spittle-heavy in-the-player's-face speeches by the game heavies about power. Some are unskippable. Some don't make diegetic sense. Joseph Seed comes to the player in dreams to rant at him (her).

        And there are plenty of points throughout the games that are desperate for a bit more thought and polish. not to mention story elements. The effects of the Bliss gas is inconsistent throughout the game, as are the effects of Jacob Seed's military brainwashing techniques. And these are things they could have totally done better, if they treated the Far Cry franchise as a video game rather than a movie inserted into a processed video-game entertainment product

        Also I'm bitter that Ubisoft created an American cult and entirely failed to do its homework about how cults work, and instead created a slave-labor racket that uses mind-control gas. I suspect that some of the upper-management were worried that if an Ubisoft game did explore the phenomena of new religious movements in the US (and the ways they turn dangerous it might actually say something political, and Ubi has a policy to avoid overt political statements (in favor of covert unfortunate and probably unintentional ones).

        And yeah, a lot of my complaints could have been fixed if they rerouted money for hiring good actors to make crappy speeches and instead sought to actually explore themes in the game.

        It looks like (so far) the FC6 team spent most of its money on Esposito cutscenes, and hasn't gone to much effort to update stealth mechanics or buddy AI. Also, after the super creepy predatory microtransactions market in New Dawn, I expect that to only get worse in FC6. But I haven't seen it yet.

        I remain skeptical it will be any good, and given that Ubisoft is still a den of crunch and sexual predation, it will be a long, long time before I buy anything from them.

        But I do like walking around Montana (or Kenya, or Tibet) in the Dunia engine, and wish there were more and better games that allowed me to do that sort of thing.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 11:31pm

        AAA games.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 11:41pm

        AAA games.

        My detailed reply got delayed, possibly for superfluous referential links.

        TL:DR, in the Far Cry series I like getting to walk around a big open world and occasionally shoot at mooks. But the game's AI is janky and cheats a bit, and Ubi's been slow to improve it, while they still spend gazillions trying to repeat the perfect storm that was Michael Mando as Vaas Montenegro.

        About FC5 I've blogged in detail some of the elements they could totally have explored (such as the bliss-gas and brainwashing effects) but they didn't bother to make them functionally consistent within the game.

        And from what it sounds like they haven't improved at all in FC6. For me it's moot, because Ubisoft has been outed as a den of crunch and sexual predation by upper management, so I won't be buying Ubisoft products for a long time. A shame since I was looking forward to the Watch Dogs: Legion

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Rico R. (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 2:40pm

    DRM, anti-cheat software, drone flight restrictions enforcement:

    All of these software tools have in common is that it assumes the end-user can't be trusted to follow the rules and/or laws. If your business model requires you to have distrust in your own customers and users, you're doing it wrong! And that's not to mention the lack of privacy that Proctorio requires...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 6 Nov 2020 @ 6:30pm

      Re: DRM, anti-cheat software, drone flight restrictions enforcem

      If your business model requires you to have distrust in your own customers and users, you're doing it wrong!

      Unless of course, you are in the business of writing anti-piracy warnings.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 11:30pm

      Re: DRM, anti-cheat software, drone flight restrictions enforcem

      "All of these software tools have in common is that it assumes the end-user can't be trusted to follow the rules and/or laws."

      Well, it's certainly true that a non-zero number of students can't be trusted to not cheat, and the stakes involved with failing an exam are certainly higher than whether or not you listen to a song you didn't buy.

      The problem is when so much of the common sense and human interaction gets handed off to a piece of software, and what happens when that goes wrong.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 7 Nov 2020 @ 3:10am

        Re: Re: DRM, anti-cheat software, drone flight restrictions enfo

        and what happens when that goes wrong.

        A Butlerian jihad.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Rico R. (profile), 7 Nov 2020 @ 10:09am

        Re: Re: DRM, anti-cheat software, drone flight restrictions enfo

        Well, it's certainly true that a non-zero number of students can't be trusted to not cheat, and the stakes involved with failing an exam are certainly higher than whether or not you listen to a song you didn't buy.

        I certainly agree with that statement. My problem with this software is that it operates under the assumption that you are going to cheat. Software alone isn't going to tell you whether or not a student was cheating, and I've seen some people on Twitter complain that their instructors are putting all their faith blindly in this software. It looks not only at what tabs you have open when taking an exam; it looks to see where your eyes are moving. I could easily see myself being accused of cheating by this software simply for looking away and slouching long enough while I try to think of the right answer. I'm no longer a student, though, and in some ways, I'm glad I've graduated already because then I won't have to deal with BS like this!

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Uriel-238 (profile), 7 Nov 2020 @ 12:01pm

          Treating students like cheaters

          The problem is that cheating students like cheaters is much like treating paying customers like thieves, even when there are a non-zero number of thieves / infringers of copyright. It only encourages more people to cheat as organized efforts rise to circumvent the more draconian measures.

          Obviously, the best solution is to take away motivations to cheat, much of which has to do with a job economy in which credentials are more important than actual competence. (And neither as important and knowing a VIP.)

          I think the most effective way to deal with retention assessment is to make tests open books and long-term. Give them a month's worth of hard questions they'd have to know the material to answer, and two months to answer them. This is the point of the post-graduate thesis: it doesn't really matter if you've retained what happened March 15, 1991 (also) but that the student knows that things happen and where they can be looked up.

          When learning computer languages, I quickly worked out I didn't need to know how to do anything. I needed to know what the language could do and the how part could be researched. These days we have libraries of algorithms that can be converted from pseudocode into real code to solve complex data processing problems.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Nov 2020 @ 2:47pm

    I just have to wonder, what does "cheating" even mean anymore?

    I know everything there is to know. No, that's not the ignorant boasting of a clueless teenager; it's a sober fact stated by a grown adult who's been thinking hard about his for a while. With a smartphone in my pocket, virtually every fact that exists is available to me, on demand, usually for free. I am, in a very real sense, in possession of all the world's knowledge, even if it isn't technically contained within my head.

    Today, competence is measured by being able to come up with correct answers. So why does it matter if what's contained within your head is the answer itself, or the process by which that answer can be obtained? It's not as if, out in the real world, there are points that you can get docked for looking something up online. So how is the concept of looking-things-up-as-cheating relevant in any way anymore?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Rocky, 6 Nov 2020 @ 5:00pm

      Re:

      Unless you have a basic understanding of things, how do you know what the correct answer is? How do you judge if the answer is reasonable for the question you had?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      PaulT (profile), 6 Nov 2020 @ 11:35pm

      Re:

      "With a smartphone in my pocket, virtually every fact that exists is available to me, on demand, usually for free. I am, in a very real sense, in possession of all the world's knowledge"

      You are also in possession of all the world's fiction, including deliberate misinformation and outright propaganda. Your phone won't tell you how to evaluate sources, apply critical thinking, or even necessarily tell you what to look for. It also won't tell you the process to arrive at a correct answer, nor will it tell you the answer to any advanced level of creative or analytical thought.

      If your education only progressed to the point where you were asked to memorise things by rote and repeat them, you might not understand that there's far more required the further you make it into education, and that requirement also follows you into real life careers outside of menial work.

      "It's not as if, out in the real world, there are points that you can get docked for looking something up online."

      You can certainly get docked if you're expected to know something and you don't have a working internet connection, or you don't know what to look for to get the answer.

      "So how is the concept of looking-things-up-as-cheating relevant in any way anymore?"

      Funnily enough, if you had a decent level of education outside of Google, you could answer that question yourself...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Scary Devil Monastery (profile), 9 Nov 2020 @ 1:37am

      Re:

      "Today, competence is measured by being able to come up with correct answers. So why does it matter if what's contained within your head is the answer itself, or the process by which that answer can be obtained? "

      Because what you really acquire from an education is "critical thinking" and the ability to vet sources. Roughly 30% of the US citizenry, despite having that very same access to information, all decided to take the garbled conspiracy theories vomited up by random shitposters as the literal be-all end-all of truth.

      The reason you can generally trust many history books not to outright lie is because the information has been extensively vetted. Doesn't mean it's complete or unskewed, but it's still a damn sight better than that Youtube vid or infowars-inspired blog laying out the "REAL" story behind the moonlanding, the pyramids, or the world wars.

      It takes a great many years of high-end education to teach humans something as simple as the realization that the more lurid and fantastic epic tale isn't true just because it's more interesting. Sadly.

      The default mode is that humans are dumber than bags of hammers, always falling for the more interesting tale in favor of more prosaic and trivial reality. What people want to be true or fear is true is what people are going to believe.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 6 Nov 2020 @ 4:07pm

    "Meanwhile, because of course, a lot more people know about the criticism of Proctorio thanks to its efforts to try to silence criticism. Isn't there a moniker for that?"

    Ah yes, the Proctorio Effect

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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