The head of ProctorU – the company behind FASEA’s new remote exam process – has moved to allay concerns about the security, privacy and functionality of the service financial advisers are being asked to use since the pandemic precluded in-person testing.
The Financial Adviser Standards and Ethics Authority began using ProctorU for its April round of exams, with many advisers being caught off-guard by a procedure that involves handing over control of the their keyboard and mouse.
For the uninitiated, it comes across as an invasive process. Once permission is given by the user, an exam invigilator or ‘proctor’ takes control of the device, closes any open apps, and may ask the user to hold up a mirror so they can detect any hidden cheat notes.
For advisers, especially, handing over control of a device that’s holding sensitive – and potentially lucrative – client information has caused considerable unease.
Scott McFarland, who runs the US-based ProctorU from its HQ in Alabama, says that while he understands the concern it is unfounded.
“We’ve been doing this for about 11 years,’ McFarland says during a zoom session with Professional Planner. “We’ve got contracts with government entities, federal institutions and more than 1000 colleges around the world.”
The CEO explains the mountain of US and cross-border regulatory benchmarks they have to meet to provide the proctoring service, which is also employed by the US military. Perhaps the strongest endorsement comes from tech heavyweight Google, whose security testing McFarland calls “thorough”.
The security is clearly top-notch. McFarland notes that ProctorU conducted 22,000 exams on the previous day – scale like that would indicate serious resources are behind the firm’s processes.
For advisers, however, the real question is around privacy. Can ProctorU use its access for nefarious intent by, for example, clicking on a document on a test-takers desktop?
“Only if the test-taker walked away and wasn’t interested in what we were doing,” McFarland answers. “The test taker sees what we see, and if the student feels uncomfortable in any way they can revoke permission. If they then reported that behaviour there would be a recording.”
McFarland says the business usually has 3.5 proctors to every test-taker, but since the pandemic began they have increased to 3 proctors per test.
The firm has to be constantly alert to catch cheats, he explains, as well as people that try to steal or copy test information to on-sell for profit. “It’s a cat and mouse game for us,” he says.
Myth and misinformation
According to Joel Ronchi, founder of FASEA exam-prep provider myIntegrity, while the education authority had little choice to use proctoring for its April exam many in the advice community were “sceptical and hesitant”.
Aside from the security and privacy concerns, he explains, a lot of advisers are worried about IT and connectivity issues – especially those in rural areas.
“The thing that’s flagged is getting through the firewall,” he says. “The other thing is the internet and the system not working.
Putting pressure on advisers is the fact that legislation to extend the cut-off date to complete the exam another 12 months has not been passed. With parliament unable to sit until at least August, and the current cut-off date set for 2021, the uncertainty is forcing many to bring their exam plans forward – even if they aren’t comfortable with proctoring.
“Advisers are thinking ‘what if it doesn’t pass, what if we don’t get the delay?’” Ronchi says.
Despite acknowledging advisers’ misgivings about the proctoring service, Ronchi thinks it’s an efficient and ultimately essential way for the industry to push on with the education mandate during the coronavirus era.
“This is the reality and the whole pandemic has forced a rethink of how everything’s done,” he says.
Brian Knight, chief executive at education provider Kaplan, runs a similar line of thought. Services like ProctorU – which Kaplan have recently begun using for their FASEA test-exams – give organisations all over the world the chance to maintain accreditation while mass gatherings aren’t feasible, he says.
“Exam centres are fraught with danger and getting that many people together is a health concern we’re all probably keen to avoid,” Knight says.
The CEO reveals that Kaplan was in the process of investigating ProctorU when the pandemic hit, which led to them adopting the service ahead of schedule.
“It was forced on us but we were going to go that way anyway,” he says. “We had three or four thousand go through ProctorU in April.”
As for security concerns, Knight reckons a lot if it is being peddled by myth and misinformation.
“We had our security IT people go over it with a fine-tooth comb and they came up with a 23-page report and gave it the all clear,” he says. “We take these things pretty seriously.”