The rising popularity of professional certifications among job seekers has been attributed to several causes – from commanding a premium on salaries to increased chances for promotions. As an increasing number of employers seek out professional certification holders for recruitment, the concern for ethics in these exams takes on more relevance, even as it becomes more questionable.

The professional certification industry deals with a high level of cheating fraud each year. With all that is at stake, there is little that some candidates won’t try, to ensure that nothing comes between them and that well-paying job looking for certification-stamped resumes. For an unusually high number of test-takers whose greatest fear has to be the idea of failing a certification test, cheating, or ‘gaming the system’ provides an easy alternative to actually preparing for it.

While cheating on an exam itself is not a new concept, the ability of candidates to cheat a certification exam in the last few years, has advanced to include a heavy reliance on technology. A few years ago a candidate might have felt clever using contraptions like mechanical pens with carefully-folded cheat sheets, but as it has with exam delivery, technology has brought significant changes to examination cheating as well.

How Candidates Cheat

Just as test administrators were starting to believe that technology had made known to them every possible method of cheating, candidates were busy using the same cover of technology to devise newer, ingenious means to cheat. Gone are the days when a sit-in replacement in an exam hall is all one had to worry about. It’s the age where the iniquity may be of the rogue’s, but the battle is with technology.

In some ways, the methods of today’s cheats are even reminiscent of a 1990’s spy movie technology. The market for high-end exam fraud is flooded with bluetooth spy kits consisting a disguised microphone and a tiny earphone that fits deep into the ear canal of the person in the exam room, and an obscure signal button to relay messages to an external device, from which answers are sent back to the test-taker. Thus making it possible to write an entire certification without actually knowing a thing!

This is even before the wave of wearable technology has hit exam administration. For between the Google Glass and the Apple Watch, different (and more affordable) varieties of smart glasses and smart watches are predicted to explode in popularity the way cellphones did in the 90s. Once that happens, it’s not long that cheats discover ways to ‘game the system’ through video, audio, or even text-reader applications. As these devices get even smaller and less obvious to increasingly resemble ordinary glasses or watches, it will become even more difficult for administrators to set controls on what needs to be left out of the exam hall.

But it’s not like restricting apparatus carried by a candidate will put an end to this plague. For far more innocuous looking ways have existed for years and newer ones continue to be discovered, such as the use of scientific calculators which even the most discerning exam administrator can’t bar a candidate from using, or printing answers on food or beverage labels. Even online exams are susceptible to loopholes that are often found only after a candidate (or scores of them) have already used them to their benefit. For eg. A couple years ago, in an online test using Moodle, an open source system, a candidate fetched the source code and created a solution that would automatically fetch and enter correct answers to the test. He would have even gotten away with it, had administrators not raised concerns over someone obtaining a hundred per cent accuracy in a very short amount of time.

Another challenge on the rise is “brain dump” sites, where anyone preparing for an exam can pay for complete versions of certification tests, which include the actual questions and the answer key. Playing on the industry’s lack of success in containing content theft for professional certifications, organized groups continue to use dummy test-takers who only serve to memorize or copy the entire question sequence when registering for the test. This information is then relayed to individual candidates for a fee sometimes as high as $2500/ test.

Cloud-based Testing: A Possible Solution?

For those looking to combat the rise in professional certification cheating, the challenge is two-fold: preventing content leak/ theft, and setting up security walls that are impenetrable for cheats to scale. The answer lies in cloud-based certification platforms that make the use of cloud computing to organize, schedule, deliver, and assess certifications in large numbers, with tight controls on security.

Cloud-based testing by definition makes it difficult to define anything tangible for cheats to get their hands around. Since it is all online, it has the ability to immediately curb testing by proxy (where candidates pay someone else to take the test) through online proctoring. Currently, many facilities employ an on-site proctor, but unfortunately, there is no guarantee about this individual’s morality. Would s/he allow someone to cheat or falsify information? Who knows! With online proctoring, on the other hand, the matching of test takers and proctors can be greatly randomized. A camera pointed at the test taker can alert the proctor to any odd behavior, and real-time screen sharing can further limit the possibility of outside help.

Similarly, by not having any physical location to store the assessments, it makes it virtually impossible for hackers to access and retrieve data. Cloud-powered platforms encrypt the data, delivering questions one at a time directly to the candidate’s screen, and the answers are recorded at a central location with the results and certifications being processed in real-time. This also allows for each test to be randomized in context of question sequence to a candidate, thus making it difficult to memorize a specific exam version – even if someone has purchased a black-market copy of the test. This reduces significantly the possibility of electronic theft and posting of test questions and answers on brain dump websites.

The End of Cheating?

A lot of the methods employed to cheat on certifications are not entirely new, just high tech versions of what’s always been around. With the tools that are now readily available, cheating is just an extension of the technology at our disposal.

Cloud-based testing may or may not be the perfect solution to eliminate cheating in certifications. However, with intelligent randomization of questions and random matching of proctors and test takers, cloud-based testing is a promising tool in the struggle to preserve the integrity of professional certifications.