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Dutch students raise privacy concerns over online exam surveillance

by Karolin Schaps | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 21 April 2020 15:10 GMT

An empty lecture hall is seen at the Erasmus University, as the Netherlands close schools, bars and restaurants to fight the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Rotterdam, Netherlands March 16, 2020. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw

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Dutch universities use software that can access webcam, location microphone, and browsing history which students say infringes on privacy

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By Karolin Schaps

AMSTERDAM, April 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Dutch students have accused universities of violating their privacy by using monitoring software to prevent cheating in exams being conducted online because of the coronavirus.

Dutch universities have been scrambling to find ways of continuing during the coronavirus crisis after the government ordered campuses to shut down on March 12.

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For exams, some have started using software that can access a student's webcam, microphone, location data, browsing history and details of which programmes they are using, among them the University of Tilburg in southern Netherlands.

Thousands of students have signed a petition started by first-year psychology student Naomi de Leng and backed by the Dutch students' union to demand that the university find an alternative.

"We also need to provide a webcam video of our entire personal space to make sure that we don't cheat. It's insane," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"We have a lot of worries about our privacy and they don't provide us with an alternative."

The University of Tilburg said it understood the concerns, but needed to assess 130,000 exams before the start of the new academic year to avoid delays to people's studies.

In a statement on its website, it said it was only using the most basic surveillance offered by the programme, called Proctorio, and all data collected would be deleted.

"The privacy infringement may even go further with a physical exam," said Klaas Sijtsma, the university's rector magnificus, who sits on the executive board, in the statement.

At least three other universities have made use of the software and more are testing it out in the Netherlands, where measures to curb the spread of the new coronavirus have been relatively relaxed.

The government has asked people to stay at home as much as possible and to keep their distance from others when outside, but many shops remain open.

The monitoring technology has been used in higher education in other European countries including France, Germany and Britain, but is most commonly used in the United States.

"I understand the university's desire to take measures to limit fraudulent activities to the greatest extent possible, but there are potentially many ways of doing this," said Jurre Reus, a lawyer specialised in privacy at Dutch firm Houthoff.

"The university should be able to explain to the students what its assessment is from a privacy perspective." (Reporting by Karolin Schaps, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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