NU faces lawsuit for improperly capturing and storing students’ biometric data


Daily file photo by Catherine Buchaniec

The Weber Arch. With COVID-19 cases on campus rising, Northwestern released an email on Monday encouraging students to “remain vigilant.”

Waverly Long, Assistant Campus Editor

Northwestern is facing a lawsuit accusing the University of capturing and storing students’ biometric identifiers — such as their facial features and voices — through online test proctoring tools. 

The complaint, filed on Jan. 27 on behalf of an anonymous NU junior, asserts that NU violated the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act. 

BIPA was enacted in 2008 to protect Illinois residents from companies seeking to collect their biometric data. The law requires companies and institutions to get permission from users before collecting and saving their biometrics. It also requires them to inform users about how their information will be stored, used and destroyed.

The lawsuit asserts that NU violated BIPA by failing to properly inform students about the collection and retention of their biometric data through online test proctoring systems such as Respondus and Examity. These tools are designed to prevent cheating by verifying students’ identities and tracking their physical and digital movements during the exam.

The complaint states that NU has been collecting students’ “facial recognition data, facial detection data, recorded patterns of keystrokes, eye monitoring data, gaze monitoring data, and camera and microphone recordings.” According to the lawsuit, NU “owns, has access to, and possesses this data.” 

It also asserts that by requiring students to use online proctoring systems when taking exams remotely, NU is not giving students a “meaningful choice” in whether or not they are comfortable with the data collection and retention.

The complaint emphasizes the lack of information given to students about the University collecting and storing their biometric data.

“Northwestern collects, captures, and stores everything from a student’s facial features to their voice through a web portal accessed through the student’s personal device,” the complaint said. “Using these tools, Northwestern is able to collect and aggregate information on all aspects of a student’s life… All the while, students are left in the dark about the vast amount of information their university collects.”

Students and faculty at universities across the country — including The University of Texas at Dallas, University of Miami and the University of Wisconsin–Madison — are demanding a ban on online test proctoring because of privacy concerns. The lawsuit filed against NU noted petitions at these schools have gained tens of thousands of student and faculty signatures.

According to a Washington Post article referenced in the lawsuit, the Faculty Association at the University of California, Santa Barbara wrote a letter to university administrators demanding they cancel their contracts with online test proctoring companies in order to avoid turning the university into “a surveillance tool.” 

The lawsuit also referenced a Forbes article that said some universities and individual professors are opting to not use proctoring software. An economic professor at Harvard told Forbes the “level of intrusion” of these tools is inappropriate.

The end of the complaint notes that NU’s actions are especially egregious because BIPA clearly outlined the requirements that NU allegedly violated.

“Northwestern’s failure to maintain and comply with such a written policy is negligent and reckless because BIPA has governed the collection and use of biometric identifiers and biometric information since 2008, and Northwestern is presumed to know these legal requirements,” the lawsuit said.

A University spokesperson told The Daily that Northwestern does not comment on pending litigation.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @waverly_long

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