The investigation at Dartmouth began when the administration conducted a flawed review of an entire year’s worth of student log data from Canvas, the online learning platform that contains class lectures and other substantive information. After a technical review, EFF determined that the logs easily could have been generated by the automated syncing of course material to devices logged into Canvas but not being used during an exam. It’s simply impossible to know from the logs alone if a student intentionally accessed any of the files, or if the pings exist due to automatic refresh processes that are commonplace in most websites and online services. In this case, many of the logs related to Canvas content that wasn’t even relevant to the tests being taken, raising serious questions about Dartmouth’s allegations.
It’s unclear how many other schools have combed through Canvas logs for evidence of cheating, but the Dartmouth debacle provides clear evidence that its logging system is not meant to be used—and should not be used—as evidence in such investigations.
Along with FIRE, EFF sent a letter to Dartmouth in March laying out our concerns, including the fact that Canvas’ own documentation explicitly states that the data in these logs is not intended to be used “in isolation for auditing or other high-stakes analysis involving examining single users or small samples.” According to the latest email sent to the student body from the Dean of the School of Medicine, the allegations have been dropped “upon further review and based on new information received from our learning management system provider.” While Instructure, the company behind Canvas, has not responded to numerous requests we’ve sent asking them to comment on Dartmouth’s use of these logs, we are heartened to hear that it is taking misuses of its system seriously. We urge the company to take a more public stand against these sorts of investigations. It’s unclear how many other schools have combed through Canvas logs for evidence of cheating, but the Dartmouth debacle provides clear evidence that its logging system is not meant to be used—and should not be used—as evidence in such investigations.
Fighting Disciplinary Technologies
Schools are not the only places where technology is being (mis)used to surveil, punish, or falsely accuse those without recourse. “Disciplinary technologies” are showing up more and more in the areas of our lives where power imbalances are common—in workplaces, in relationships, and in homes. Dartmouth is an example of the way these technologies can exacerbate already existing power dynamics, giving those in power an excuse not to take due process seriously. Students were not only falsely accused, but they were given little to no recourse to defend themselves from what the school saw as incontrovertible evidence against them. It was only after multiple experts demanded the school take a closer look at the evidence that they began to backtrack. What’s worse, only those students who had technical experts available to them had their charges quickly dropped, while those who lacked resources or connections were left with their futures in the balance, raising questions of inequity and preferential treatment.
While we’re pleased that these allegations have been dropped for all students—and pleased that, according to the dean, the school will be reviewing a proposal for open-book exams, which would eliminate the harms caused by online proctoring software—the distress this caused cannot be overstated. Several students expected their careers would be destroyed for cheating when they had not done so; others were told to admit guilt simply because it would be easier on them. Many students complained, some anonymously for fear of reprisal, of the toll these allegations were taking on their mental health. In the midst of the investigation, the school released a dangerous update to its social media policy that silenced students who were speaking out, which appears to still be an active policy. All of this could have been avoided.
We’re working at EFF to craft solutions to the problems created by disciplinary technologies and other tools that put machines in power over ordinary people, and to protect the free speech of those speaking out against their use. It will take technologists, consumers, activists, and changes in the law to course correct—but we believe the fight can be won, and today’s decision at Dartmouth gets us one step closer.