When Shivan Kaul Sahib, a senior at McGill University in Montreal, was applying for a job as a software engineer at Amazon, the company asked him to take a test to measure his skills, which would be administered remotely through online proctor ProctorU.
Sahib, who has worked as an intern at Salesforce and Ericsson, says he had never encountered a virtual proctor in any of his previous interviews with tech companies. When he logged on to take Amazon’s test, he was surprised that the proctor took over his computer. He detailed the experience in a blog post:
“As preamble, the proctor made me download some software, one of which spun up a UI for chatting with the proctor and giving them access to my machine so they can take control of my entire computer, including mouse. The proctor then proceeded to shut down all my running applications for me (I never realized what an unnerving experience it is to see your mouse move on your screen under someone else’s bidding). Then, my system settings were messed around with to make sure I can’t take screenshots. Of course, my camera and microphone are taken control of as well.”
Things got more “big brother” from there. The proctor, noticing papers on Sahib’s desk, asked him to clean it. When Sahib said that his desk would take a long time to clean and it would be easier to take the test sitting on his bed, the proctor asked him to use his computer video camera to show him the sheets (to make sure he hadn’t hidden written material on or underneath them).
Eventually, the level of intrusiveness became too much. While Sahib was waiting for the proctor to fix a problem, he writes, “the absurdity of what I’m doing – waiting to get access to my own machine – outweighs the patience I have for someone trying to do their job, and I click the ‘Revoke All Access’ button, switch off my WiFi, turn my firewalls up to the max and delete all software they made me install.”
The process may have pricked Sahib’s sense of privacy—as he puts it, “I’d given a company complete access to my entire machine, just so I can apply to work there”—but it’s not an unusual process. ProctorU serves more than 900 institutions, and proctors about 1 million tests per year. A similar company, called Software Secure, has more than 400 customers, mostly schools.
ProctorU has been around since 2009, and CEO Scott McFarland says it works with “most of the very large academic institutions,” both brick-and-mortar schools that are expanding to online education and online universities. Schools often use it to administer final tests. Companies use ProctorU to test job applicants, as with the test that Amazon gave to Sahib, or to certify employees in a new skill. ProctorU also works with a company that administers the written portion of drivers license tests.
In other words, it has become completely normal for a prospective employer, a school, a drivers license test provider, or a company HR department to require that you install software on your computer, give a stranger complete access to your machine, show that stranger your home—or even allow that stranger to tour your bed sheets. These are the standard procedures.
It’s the trade for convenience that has led us to accept so many fairly intrusive products, like email accounts that mine conversations for data that helps target ads, online tracking so effective that a store might know we’re pregnant before our families do, and gadgets that literally put a speaker in our homes that listens to our conversations.
McFarland says the company wouldn’t be able to administer a test as effectively without its big-brother moderation tactics. “The people who are determined to steal content or improve their scores in exams that are proctored like this—their capabilities are getting better,” he tells Quartz. “It’s a constant battle to manage the concerns of the institution and the integrity of the exam and the concerns of the test taker about privacy.”
Without someone watching carefully, people cheat. Take one example from an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
One student tried to fool ProctorU by attaching a sticky note just below his Webcam, so that the proctor couldn’t see it. But the proctor caught the student’s eyes drifting to the note and made him hold up a mirror to his monitor, busting him. Now the mirror check is part of the company’s regular protocols.
Reflections like Sahib’s blog post are a good reminder to think about the normalized privacy costs of convenience.
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
Update: An Amazon spokesperson says that the company recently stopped working with ProctorU. Sahib also added an update to his blog post: “I’ve heard from a number of people inside Amazon that they’re now overhauling their interviewing process, which is fantastic, and the ideal outcome I could have imagined writing this.”