In a decision highlighting the tension between technological developments and personal privacy, an Ohio federal court recently prohibited public universities from scanning student test takers’ home surroundings for impermissible materials. This holding, although likely to be appealed, may impact not only post-secondary institutions, such as colleges and universities, but also K-12 school districts.
Background: A college student filed suit after a testing proctor directed him to scan his bedroom in advance of an online exam. Specifically, the university had various procedures in place to ensure online test security and proctoring. These included a plagiarism detection system, various proctoring programs to flag suspicious activity or prevent students from accessing the internet, and a room scan with the student’s camera. University faculty had discretion in choosing which of the above tools, if any, to require for their online exams. On the morning of the exam, the college student notified the university that he had confidential settlement documents, including tax records, scattered in his work area. Nevertheless, the proctor asked the student to briefly scan his bedroom with the camera just before the exam. The student complied, and the room scan lasted about 10 to 20 seconds, during which the proctor did not see any tax documents. The college student alleged that this incident violated the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures.
Decision: The Court held in the student’s favor, finding that he had an objectively reasonable expectation of privacy in his home. The Court further found that scanning the bedroom was a search under Fourth Amendment case law, and that the room scan was not an effective way of consistently preventing cheating. In short, the student’s privacy interests outweighed the university’s interests in scanning his bedroom.
Implications: Until an appellate court holds otherwise, public post-secondary institutions in Ohio should immediately discontinue room scans for remote testing. In addition, Ohio public school districts should also consider other options for preserving the integrity of any online tests and assessments conducted in students’ homes. Although this decision does include some language suggesting that K-12 students have diminished privacy interests, it is probably best to avoid room scans if at all possible.
Please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns related to this decision specifically or student privacy issues in general.