Screening Surveillance is a series of short films produced by sava saheli singh. During an event featuring singh hosted by the d12n Research Cluster, we watched two of the films, which speculate on a near future in which “smart cities” and fully integrated health data systems envelope daily routines. The subsequent discussion, however, focused on issues that were even closer to home. Our Faculty had recently adopted the automated proctoring system Proctorio, which most participants in our event perceived as an unacceptable imposition on our students, but also as yet another unfortunate step of our own institution into being complicit with surveillance capitalism. Proctorio turns our students’ activities into data to be monetized, and such datafication enables a process of “accumulation by surveillance”. Online proctoring alone is projected to become a 20 billion euro industry by next year, and the wider ed-tech sector is valued at nearly 100 billion euros.

That would be fine if this industry served our institution’s core business of teaching and learning. The case of Proctorio at least suggests otherwise. The company has repeatedly sought to silence academics critical of their product and algorithmic proctoring in general, and has even tried to pressure a peer-reviewed journal, Hybrid Pedagogy, into retracting an article critical of proctoring software. All the while, evidence that use of Proctorio and related systems is ableist and discriminatory has been mounting. I was heartened to see that students around the world, including students in our own Faculty, refused proctoring.

As we work out what the post-pandemic university will look like, our institutions’ relationship with these kinds of predatory systems must be a major issue. Will we be able to slough them off, or will they be normalized the way Turnitin has become normalized? Recent experiences incline me toward pessimism. I am advising a group of students doing research on StudyStream, a voluntary online learning space begun during the pandemic. Popularized by a series of TikTok videos, the core experience of StudyStream consists of Zoom rooms and a Discord server where students from around the world get together to subject themselves to voluntary mutual surveillance. This is not a niche thing; hundreds of thousands of students sign on to take part. While StudyStream is not currently monetizing this experience and may well find a business model that does not require them to exploit user data, I am struck by how quickly intense surveillance has become a taken-for-granted part of students’ learning environments. As educators, our responsibility to defend education as “the practice of freedom” has a newfound urgency at this time.1

  1. This post originally appeared as part of a “Pieter’s Corner” on The Surveillance Society on the Leiden University website.