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Saturday, September 30, 2023

The switch to online learning has resulted in the use of Honorlock for online proctoring by some instructors, predominantly in STEM classes.

Honorlock at UW-Madison presents privacy concerns, perpetuates harmful learning environment

As schooling has been largely moved online because of the COVID-19 pandemic, students across the nation are voicing their concerns about the use of digital surveillance programs to foster academic integrity. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, students are specifically calling for the ban of Honorlock, an online proctoring service “that supports integrity, makes test-taking less stressful and saves everyone time and hassle,” according to their website.

The actual functioning of Honorlock, however, seems to do quite the opposite: the software is unnecessarily invasive and requires superfluous circumstances and effort from students. Its very nature perpetuates a harmful status quo in framing students as cheaters, and its use seems punitive during a time when the university claims to acknowledge “the frustration, anxiety and stress the pandemic continues to create on a daily basis on so many different levels of our lives.” 

In short, UW-Madison must ban Honorlock. 

The primary privacy issues caused by Honorlock stem from its video and audio surveillance, browser extension and data storage. According to UW-Madison’s KnowledgeBase, Honorlock uses the webcam and microphone connected to student’s computers and requires “a 360-degree room scan.” It also requires students to show a photo ID, either government-issued — like a driver’s license or passport — or school-issued to confirm their identity. 

Not only does the requirement of a 360-degree room scan of students’ private spaces seem incredibly intrusive, but the company also saves students’ desktop activity and webcam and video recordings taken during exams — including their ID information — for 12 months

According to their website, Honorlock encrypts and saves data within a private cloud in an Amazon data center and will not share or sell the data to third parties. However, there is little transparency as to why they hold onto data for an entire year. For instance, they do not specify what happens to data in the event of company bankruptcy, which in the past has often resulted in data sale or sharing.

In addition to the great potential of privacy breach, these features discriminate against students who do not have access to non-disruptive workspaces. For instance, the tests of students who live in shared housing could easily be flagged when the webcam and audio surveillance detect additional faces and voices. This directly contradicts the University’s claim “to understand [that] remote learning may present challenges for some students based on circumstances such as living situation” and its guide for instructional continuity that states “developing a flexible course plan is key.”

Not to mention, the software requires students to have a computer with a working webcam and microphone, which tend to be costly. This particular aspect of Honorlock misaligns with the University’s efforts to ensure “accessible course instruction.” Further, it places an added burden on students who are already dealing with ever changing updates and amendments to their education experience.

Privacy concerns and accessibility issues aside, the principle of digital surveillance programs like Honorlock uphold an unhealthy attitude towards students and a plausibly counterproductive treatment of their learning. Academic integrity is important, but implementing such software sends a certain message to students: that they are untrustworthy and that cheating is expected.

The “Pygmalion Effect”, which was first described by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson in their 1966 study “Teachers’ Expectancies: Determinants of Pupils’ IQ Gains,” refers to the phenomenon of positive expectations influencing student performance positively and negative expectations influencing student performance negatively. 

“When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur,” Rosenthal and Jacobson concluded in their study.

The more general self-fulfilling prophecy, defined by “Simply Psychology” as “the process by which a person’s expectations about someone can lead to that someone behaving in ways which confirm the expectations,” describes similar logic. 

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Neither concept directly addresses the issue of cheating or cheating prevention measures, but their pervasiveness in psychology begs the questions: what happens to students when their University goes to such great lengths in trying to catch them cheat? Conversely, what would happen if the University simply held students to a higher standard? 

Part of the university’s mission is to help students “realize their highest potential of intellectual, physical and human development.” But the presence of deeply intrusive digital surveillance illustrates profound mistrust in the student populace and opposes the University’s mission by assigning the lowest standards to its students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced universities to get creative in how they shift their instruction online, but many of the actions and decisions made by UW-Madison thus far have not been visionary. 

Honorlock is no exception.

Haley is a Senior studying Journalism, with a certificate in French. Do you think Honorlock infringes on personal privacy? Do you think using Honorlock contradicts statements of flexibility and faith in the student body? Send all comments to

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