Wearables vs. proctors: Test taking security in the era of constant connectivity

Just as smartphones have changed everything, so too will wearables. One challenge will be securing test taking in a world where everything has an active connection.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

This sweet beast, especially with Florida plates, stands out in small town Oregon.

Red and blue blinking lights were suddenly in my rearview mirror. To paraphrase every driver ever, "Oh, crap."

I had spent a long day with plumbers, electricians, and drywall installers, fixering up my newly purchased fixer upper. If we ever get it to the point where the pipes don't leak and the electrical circuits aren't crossed, my family might even be able to move in. In the meantime, I was driving back to our temporary rental home for a well-earned night's sleep.

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Unfortunately for my stress level, a diligent local Oregon police officer noticed my bright red muscle car with Florida plates. What was a car from Florida doing driving around a historic small town in Oregon, he asked?

I explained the whole thing, that we'd evacuated from Florida, that we'd rented a house in hopes that we could find something affordable to buy while we tried to sell our Florida house. We had just lucked out and found and purchased a house in town, but probably wouldn't be able to move in for months. I'd explained that I hadn't gotten an Oregon driver's license yet because I hadn't been sure I could stay. Up until a couple of weeks ago, I was still technically a Florida resident, so I still had a Florida driver's license and plates.

"No," said the officer. "You've been in Oregon for a while now. You need to get an Oregon driver's license." No amount of explaining that I hadn't yet been able to move into my new Oregon address was acceptable. I was told that if I didn't have an Oregon license within a week, I'd be pulled over again.

And that's how I found myself at the Oregon DMV, sitting sandwiched between the mom with the teenager who was completely freaked out by any sound, and the dad with three little boys who gloried in making as much of a ruckus as they could get away with in the confined space of the DMV waiting area.

Transferring a license is pretty easy, except for the computer-based test. Yep. A test. I haven't had to take a test since grad school, but if you want to drive in Oregon (and this is the same in other states), you have to take a computer-based test that confirms you understand the law of the land.

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The clerk at the DMV was very nice. He explained everything to me, and then asked me to turn off my smartphone. This makes sense. At the DMV, as with any proctored test, you want to make sure the test-takers can't glance at their phones for information.

I was also wearing an Apple Watch. The clerk did not ask me to take it off or turn it off. Because I am very aware of security issues, I deliberately shut down my watch, took it off my wrist, and put it into my pocket. As I did, I wondered how many folks kept their watches on while taking the test.

Happily, I passed. As I drove away, the bearer of a brand-new Oregon driver's license (with motorcycle endorsement, natch), I continued thinking about the test taking environment, and ruminated over the security risk that wearables introduce into the realm of proctored exams.

Wearables introduce a new way to cheat

The DMV, of course, isn't the only place where a proctored exam takes place. Many of my online students aren't local to the university. When they have to take a test, they do so at testing centers all across the world. Nurses and other licensed professionals take tests at proctored testing centers.

All of these tests are subject to subversion by cheaters using wearable devices.

The Apple Watch, for example, lets users transmit completely undetectable taps. A user outside the testing area can communicate with the test taker, and no one would know.

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There are now tiny earbuds that can't be seen under long hair. We reviewed the Jabra Elite Active 65t recently, but they're costly at $189. Cheaper versions can be had on Amazon for as little as $25. A test taker could go into a test and be prompted by someone remotely, and if the earbud is hidden in the ear, under the hair, no one would know.

Add to that the idea of glasses and other wearables, like pendants. At some point, we're going to have augmented reality glasses. It will be very hard to separate wearers from cheaters.

The proctoring problem

While proctors can ask for phones to be turned off, and watches and earbuds to be removed, at some point the proctors' ability to limit wearable cheating will run aground.

A cheater, for example, could tape an Apple Watch to a leg or an upper arm and without completely removing outerwear, no proctor would be able to discern that a device was being used to cheat.

As wearables become more ubiquitous, smaller, and unobtrusive, it will be harder and harder to separate devices from the wearer.

Jamming the cheaters

There's pretty much only one solution, and as a connectivity addict, I'm loathe to recommend it: jamming. While a proctor can see a physical cheater looking at a smartphone or a smartwatch, other forms of signaling can't be visually determined.

Instead, it's likely that signal jammers that can block Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and LTE signals will be needed to keep test takers honest.

It really bothers me that some folks are willing to cheat on a test. As an educator, I know that some students are willing to put their educational futures at risk by cheating, but it does make me sad. The whole idea of testing is to validate knowledge.

But, human nature being what it is, some people will cheat, no matter what. As technology gets more and more pervasive, embedded in our clothing and even our bodies, jamming or blocking rogue signals is pretty much the only defense.

Do you have any ideas how to prevent cheating, other than jamming? Let me know in the comments below.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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