Exam Data Breaches During the Era of COVID-19: Everything You Need to Know

Exam data breaches occur more often than we might like to see but, with COVID-19 destroying the exam system we once knew, will this year be even worse?



It may surprise you to learn that, in the UK, leaked examinations are pretty commonplace. In fact, certain exam boards are notorious for letting down students, so how do exam boards work to shield their exams from leakage?

Restrictions on GDPR across the UK have certainly been doubled down on over recent years. Now, seeking legal advice if you have been a victim of a data breach has become part and parcel of many peoples’ lives. Clearly, what with the internet and social media opening us up to vulnerability, consenting to data exposure has never been more important.

That said, do the same restrictions and protections occur in the world of educational exams? To discover more about some classic cases of exam data breaches, and how they occur, you came to the right place. But, will the coronavirus wreak further havoc on our education system than usual?



How Does an Exam Data Breach Occur?

An exam data breach can occur for a couple of reasons; the first being a cyber thief hacking into the exam board system seeking the paper. If this is the case, this classes as a theft, as the exam paper has been obtained improperly.

In these cases, hackers may release the papers on the dark web, specifically for people who are going looking for them. Alternatively, they might leak the paper openly to social media, or censor the images so that people pay money to receive the leaked pages. Otherwise, a hacker may simply spread the paper around to their closest friends to ensure they are advantaged.

That said, you might be surprised to hear that the most common reason why exams may be leaked to the public are human error. This could be a situation where past exam papers are placed online, and the unseen paper from this year is added too, by accident. Whatever it may be, it’s usually the fault of careless workers within the exam board that cause the issues.


Have There Been Any Recent Exam Data Breaches?

In recent years, a number of examination boards have come under fire for being too lax with their restrictions. In fact, last year, Edexcel were scorned for allowing data leaks to occur over the past three years; 2019, 2018, and 2017.

Last year, in June 2019, for example, Edexcel had to launch an investigation after a section of their A-Level paper 3 Maths exam was shared online. Pages of the exam were made available on social media 12 hours before the examination was set to take place. This gave students who came across the leak ample time to go through the exam, and exchange notes with friends.

In this particular case, the images had been shared online, and blacked out. The person encouraged anyone who wished to view the questions to Direct Message them.

Some say that the exam answers were actually being auctioned off for hundreds of pounds. Other students involved even went as far as to say that the images had been circulated through group chats elsewhere, as well.

Although Edexcel, owned by Pearson, claimed that the distribution of the exam was limited, there would be no real way of tracking this. Considering it made its way into the Twitter-sphere, there’s no telling how many people got access to it. The scale of this operation, with social media as it is today, meant absolutely anyone could have had access to this.

The exam board only became aware of the leak after the 2019 Maths examination had already taken place. The whole palaver ended up with a police investigation going ahead, as well as the exam board launching their own inquest.

A similar situation occurred in 2017, when last minute changes had to be made to the exam after it was revealed that the exam had been leaked. In this case, the leak was quashed before the examination went ahead, saving victims from the threat of a retake, or worse.


What Effects Does an Exam Data Breach Cause?

Although it might seem as though a leak in examination data would be a happy day for all students involved, it’s really not like this at all. In most cases, it is only a select few students who end up seeing the leaked papers, leaving the majority of students unawares, and disadvantaged.

Many students are they left feeling angry, upset, and anxious once they’ve taken a leaked exam paper, as they feel as though they have missed out. When exams are graded, the grade boundaries are moved depending on the average results of those who take the exam. So, if a number of students knew the answers beforehand, this may increase the grade average of everyone, increasing the boundaries, and disadvantaging those who didn’t cheat.

What’s more, there’s no real way of knowing the scale of it, meaning that sometimes, papers have to be retaken. In other cases, the entire papers are dismissed, and predicted grades of students are taken instead. Again, this can really harm a students’ prospects, especially if they worked extra hard to exceed their predicted grades.


How Are Exam Data Breaches Prevented?

There are a number of ways in which exam boards work to prevent these sorts of data breaches from occurring. Some of these include:

  • Inserting micro-chops inside packs of exam papers, so that they can be tracked at every stage, and any suspicious activity is noted when it occurs;
  • Data protection principles are enforced at all stages of the exam dissemination;
  • A movement from manual paper writing and design, to a technology-based system;
  • And exam papers are stored safely and securely.


What Happens When an Exam is Leaked?

Despite all these safeguards, it’s very clear that exam leaks still occur more often than we would like to see. So, what actually happens when an exam is leaked?

To begin with, as we’ve seen, an investigation is launched either by the police, the exam board, or both, depending on the nature of the attack. After this, exam boards have a pretty well-established process for tackling this, to make sure no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in any way.

In most cases, they try to avoid a resit as best they can. Then, any students who were caught cheating will have their grades suspended until the investigation is completed.



How Will COVID-19 Effect Exam Security?

Concerns over the security of exams being taken this year, above any other, are obviously very high. Not least do students have to take their exams in their own homes, which could leave some more advantaged than others. After all, how secure can home exams truly be, even with online invigilators?

To top it off, hackers are looking to exploit our vulnerabilities during this pandemic, more than ever before. What with many companies switching to remote working very quickly, and the general public remaining at home, we are all more vulnerable than ever to scammers and hackers.

So, in a world where exams are usually paper based, what will happen when it’s all become electronic in a matter of months? Only time will tell.


How Will Exams be Taken This Year to Avoid Any Breaches?

With coronavirus changing everything, the UK government and exam boards have had to figure out a way that examinations can be taken securely, if at all. In most cases, in fact, exams have been cancelled altogether. That said, whether exams in universities go ahead is down to their discretion, meaning some university students might still be taking them.

In these rare cases, the candidates are required to move themselves into a quiet room with the door closed, so they’re not disturbed for the entire duration. The computer they use must be reliable, with a good data connection, and a working webcam and microphone.

Each student taking the exam is then assigned either an invigilator, to watch over them for the whole exam, or an Artificial Intelligence “invigilator”. This basically looks out for any suspicious activity, particularly any eye movements that might be a sign of cheating.

Throughout the duration of the exam, you are instructed to ensure your webcam and microphone is on at all times. Then, before the exam begins, you are required to show the invigilator the room you’re working in. You’re also supposed to show the desk space, inside any drawers, and so on, to ensure no cheating occurs.

Many students who have already taken remote exams in this way have complained of the lack of privacy this affords. This invasion into the homes of students is unlike anything anyone has had to deal with before, so it’s certainly a strange system.

Unfortunately, many students from lower income families may not be privileged with the ability to move themselves into a quiet room. They may also not have an individual laptop, which is secure, and a secure broadband connection, enough for a fair exam.

Hence, why examinations have had to be cancelled, in many cases. Instead, grades are being calculated in other ways.



Don’t Fall for It…

As we’ve seen, exam data breaches are more common than you might think. Now, with the coronavirus era spreading out onwards, into exam season and summertime, we’re all more vulnerable than ever to cyber-attacks. What’s more, what with any examinations that do go ahead becoming electronic, how safe can we really be?

What do you think? Will COVID-19 be a change for the better, or do you think exams will be a lot less secure with all this happening?

If you or your child has ever experienced what it’s like to take a leaked examination, do leave a comment down below with your story. Let’s raise awareness, so we are all prepared to tackle the worst.#


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