“Room Scans” in Remote Examinations Ruled Unconstitutional

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In a win for student digital privacy rights, Aaron Ogletree, a student at Cleveland State University (CSU), has successfully challenged the University’s implementation of “room scanning” rules in connection with proctoring his remote Chemistry II examination. Students at all levels have become familiar with remote test proctoring software in recent years. The use of remote test proctoring technology by educational institutions has increased in connection with various COVID-19 restrictions and remote learning. These increasingly common remote examination requirements for students are likely to change.

The Fourth Amendment

The recent landmark decision of the Northern District of Ohio held that remote testing procedures implemented by public universities and requiring use of a webcam to “scan” one’s testing environment are searches pursuant to the Fourth Amendment. These procedures risk causing an unconstitutional governmental intrusion into students’ private space. The Fourth Amendment prohibits searches by government entities where they are “unreasonable.” In the context of remote proctoring technology, the Court weighed the University’s interest in ensuring exam integrity with students’ privacy interests within their own homes. The Court sided with students, holding that a school may not arbitrarily require students to provide access to their private spaces through a webcam.

In Spring of 2021, Ogletree used “Honorlock,” a remote testing software, that required him to identify himself using a photo-ID as well as using a camera to scan his testing environment before he would be permitted to complete the examination. In the instance at issue in this case, Ogletree was required to conduct a video scan of his bedroom before he would be permitted to complete the remotely proctored exam. Honorlock then stored the scan information on its third-party servers and made the recording available to other students in the class, according to Judge J. Philip Calabrese’s opinion. Judge Calabrese held that Ogletree’s “privacy interest in his home outweighs [CSU’s] interests in scanning his room.” The Court “determine[d] that [CSU’s] practice of conducting room scans” thus constitutes an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment.

Knowing your Privacy Rights

The Court noted that no student had ever previously refused a room scan by CSU and that CSU had no policies in place to handle a potential refusal. On the date of his exam, Ogletree stated he had informed his proctor of confidential documents scattered about his work area and that he did not have time to secure them. Nonetheless, believing he had no other option to complete the test, he complied with the room scan. The proctor testified that she did not directly view confidential documents or medications in the testing area. However, the Court emphasized that one’s home, and one’s bedroom within the home, lie “at the core of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against governmental intrusion.”

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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