Pirates, cheats and IT certs

Cheating is on the rise, but IT certification programs are fighting back.

It didn't take long for the test center proctor to realize something was amiss. One group of people clearly stood out from the rest of the candidates taking a popular IT certification exam. They sat rigidly in their chairs, hardly moving at all, and they proceeded through the questions at a pace of six items per minute, well above the norm of one to two questions per minute. All scored well above the minimum needed to pass the test.

After the testing concluded, the test center called in Caveon LLC, a consultancy that specializes in test security, including data forensics, to review the situation. "At first blush it looks like by using a Bluetooth speaker and a video camera they were collaborating with a subject-matter expert offsite," says Caveon's vice president Steve Addicott.

Such equipment is readily available online at sites like the aptly named spycheatstuff.com. Aspiring cheaters can buy wireless speakers that fit deep inside the ear canal, where they can't easily be seen, as well as tiny cameras that are simple to hide. The suspected cheaters in this case were most likely sitting still to give their hidden cameras a clear video image of the screen, Addicott says. The review of that particular case is still ongoing.

Cheating is trending

IT certifications have become a primary route to both salary premiums and career advancement, according to a recent Foote Partners report. So it's no surprise that, as the popularity of certifications has grown, so has cheating. "Jobs and careers are at stake here, so people will attempt all sorts of things," says Matthew Poyiadgi, vice president of Pearson Education Inc.'s Pearson VUE business unit, which manages 5,100 test centers worldwide and counts the IT certification program manager CompTIA among its clients.

And while CompTIA estimates that the level of cheating on IT certification exams is less than 5%, industry insiders say the problem is growing and that keeping up with the cheats requires constant vigilance.

How people cheat

  • Bring high-tech spy cameras and Bluetooth earpieces into test centers to show questions to and receive answers from an off-site expert
  • Purchase stolen test content from overseas "brain dump" sites and then memorize the questions and/or answers
  • Share questions and answers in online chat rooms
  • Hire an expert as a proxy to take the test for them
  • Bring low-tech cheat sheets into the test center on index cards, write answers on the palm of the hand, etc.
  • Surreptitiously use a smartphone to gain unfair advantage through use of texting, images, online searches, etc., during an exam.

-- Robert L. Mitchell

So far, cheating doesn't appear to have devalued most IT certifications in the eyes of hiring managers. For the 309 IT certifications that Foote Partners tracks, the average pay premium across 2,600 surveyed companies has gone up for the last four consecutive quarters, says CEO David Foote.

While there's no way to definitively know if a prospective hire has cheated to obtain an IT certification, employers can and should check with the certification body to make sure the person actually attained it. "Trust, but verify," says Addicott.

For the most part, he adds, hiring managers can trust that verified IT certifications were legitimately earned."Just a few rotten apples have cast doubt on the qualifications of individuals in the IT profession," he says. But, he adds, it is possible that a few individuals have benefitted from the live exam content available online and used that to gain a higher score on an exam. So an IT certification should only be one part of the hiring decision.

Other steps include checking references, reviewing employment history and asking a few carefully crafted questions designed to gauge whether the candidate really knows his or her stuff.

Where the cert developers fit in

Developers of IT certification programs, such as Microsoft and CompTIA, contract with Prometric, Pearson VUE and other independent test centers that administer and proctor tests worldwide on their behalf. These businesses also provide training services, and so must have a secure firewall between the testing and training sides of the business.

IT certification bodies and test center operators are engaged in an arms race with pirates who steal test questions and answers, and with cheaters who buy that information, share answers in chat rooms, pay "proxies" (people who will to take tests for them) and bring a range of technologies and techniques into test centers to gain an edge. IT certification organizations, worried about degradation of their credentials, are striking back by turning to more sophisticated methods to catch cheaters and mitigate piracy. And cheaters who get caught increasingly face more than just a slap on the wrist.

Even people who cheat and don't get caught during the exam still have reason to worry. Pearson VUE records every session to digital video and reviews it after the fact. Recently, scrutiny of unusual head movements tipped off the team that one test taker had an embedded camera in his glasses. "The way people are cheating is changing. They're using technology more," Poyiadgi says.

But the most common ways people try to cheat aren't always the most high-tech, says Shelby Grieve, Microsoft's director of professional certifications including the Microsoft Certified Solutions Expert and Microsoft Technology Associate. "The trend has moved from taking exam answers into a testing center to more passive methods of cheating, such as using 'brain-dump' sites and proxy testing services," she says.

Grieve says Microsoft has caught candidates who colluded online through question and answer sharing, as well as people who used low-tech approaches such as copying off other peoples' exams, texting answers and even modifying someone else's printed score report.

Potential consequences for those who get caught

  • Immediate disqualification from the current test
  • Ban on taking the test again for a period of time -- or for life
  • Loss of all previous certifications from the IT certification program provider

-- Robert L. Mitchell

Brain-dump sites don't just provide a place where users can share answers, says Caveon's Addicott. "These websites aggressively sell pirated test content and package it as test prep materials -- and they guarantee that you'll pass. It's a real problem with IT certifications," he says. Most of these sites are based in Asia, where it's more difficult to shut down the sites and prosecute the offenders. Overseas test center franchises with lax controls have been a source for test theft and cheating because tests and answer keys are typically always downloaded and stored at each location, giving cheaters easier access, he adds.

"The single biggest factor in how much cheating you have is if you test internationally, and IT certification programs are virtually all international programs," says John Fremer, president of Caveon's Consulting Services group.

Rise of the hired gun

Proxy test-taking is growing concern for Bryan Kainrath, vice president for certification operations at CompTIA, which owns the A+, Network+ and other popular IT certifications. "We're seeing more proxy testing than we have in the past. Most proxy scams involve hiring someone in China to take a test for someone in the U.S. That happens all the time," he says.

A few years ago, a large IT certification provider engaged Caveon to hire a proxy and attempt to pass the test without being caught. "The certification program paid us, we paid a proxy service and one of my colleagues earned this prestigious certification even though he had no background," says Addicott. The price to cheat: A $1,000 check wired through Western Union. The terms were 50% down, with the balance paid after the job was completed.

Proxy test-taking services are big business overseas, in part because what Americans consider cheating is culturally more acceptable in some other locations, Caveon's Fremer says. The buyer signs up and the proxy goes to a test center and takes the test. It's good money, says Fremer. "In some parts of the world you can earn six months' salary with one proxy test-taking event."

A sample letter from Caveon LLC's interaction with a proxy website. By paying the site to hire a proxy to take the test in his place, a Caveon staff person "earned" a prestigious IT certification for which he had no background. Caveon removed the name of the test to protect the client. Source: Caveon LLC.

In some cases, proxies have been able to skirt security protocols by visiting corrupt testing facilities overseas that operate both a legitimate "front room" test area and a fraudulent "back room" operation. "Those stringent protocols aren't followed when the test center runs its own proxy ring," which can be very lucrative, Addicott says.

To address proxy test-taking, test centers typically require candidates to present a photo ID, and a few centers, including those directly managed by Pearson VUE, have added biometric identification and digital signatures, as well as taking the candidate's photo. Once a person has registered under one identity, he can't act as a proxy for someone else. What's more, the person who hired the proxy will be caught if she tries to take another test, since her photo and biometric data won't match.

Test centers might also record the test subjects on digital video, and put the test taker's photo right on the certification report. "Proxy testing used to be a big thing," says Pearson's Poyiadgi. "But once we required digital photos and digital signatures it disappeared."

But while the "gold standard" of testing security applies to the 500 testing centers that Pearson VUE owns, that can vary at the other 4,600 sites owned by Pearson's partners, including IT training organizations and colleges and universities that test students at the end of a training program.

Den of thieves

Pirates use a variety of techniques to steal entire tests and answer keys. These include sending people into test centers to remember or photograph sets of questions. (This type of "item harvesting" might require sending as few as 10 people into a test center to memorize all of the questions on a given test.)

It can also involve outright theft of test data from corrupt or lax test centers. "Because the whole test and answer key is downloaded to servers at each location the entire item bank and answer key are available to be hacked. It's really problematic," Caveon's Addicott says -- and it's leading some certification and testing organizations to move to a SaaS-based test delivery model. ( See sidebar, below.)

When test takers try to cheat using brain-dump sites, however, they sometimes end up getting cheated themselves. In some cases the sites deliver fraudulent or obsolete content to unsuspecting buyers, says Dave Meissner, chief operating officer at Kryterion Inc., a provider of online IT certification testing services. "If people spent the same energy and creativity to study as they do to cheat they would be far better off."

In response, IT certification bodies have staged coordinated attacks on brain-dump sites where the pirates attempt to sell the looted data, including the use of cease and desist orders and raids, says Kainrath. "We'll meet with Cisco, Microsoft, VMware and try to figure out the best approach to mitigate these sites," he says.

"If we find out that a test center has been colluding in any way, that center is shut down by our security team," says Poyiadgi. Pearson VUE, he adds, has only experienced "a handful of cases."

For the industry as a whole, however, combating intellectual property theft has been an uphill battle. "You can shut the sites down but it's like pulling the top off a weed. It just pops up somewhere else," Kainrath adds.

"It's not mom and pop" thieves, says Fremer. "Organized sophisticated stealers can make millions -- or tens of millions -- from just one certification program."

So, test sites and certification programs try to react quickly to minimize the damage. CompTIA monitors online brain-dump sites and chat rooms for stolen test items, and uses analytics to determine whether any given question's effectiveness in measuring competency might have been compromised. "As soon as there's been any degradation we pull the item," Kainrath says. "We have huge item banks in reserve and can move questions in and out quickly."

Story continues on next page.

Attacking pirates from the cloud

The traditional computer-based testing approach of having full copies of IT certification tests and answers stored in thousands of test centers worldwide has made test theft difficult to stop. To reduce the risk, IT certification providers are beginning to adopt Internet-based technology (IBT), cloud-based software as a service methodology that delivers questions, one at a time, in encrypted form, to a secured browser on each test taker's desktop.

This approach eliminates the need to download and store tests and answer keys at each testing site, which can have different levels of security depending on their size and where they're located. "The use of IBT is still relatively small but growing," Caveon's vice president Steve Addicott says, and big players such as Microsoft and CompTIA are already starting to adopt it.

At Microsoft, "We use the traditional delivery engine as well as just-in-time, Internet-based delivery," says Shelby Grieve, Microsoft's director of professional certifications.

Internet Testing Systems LLC sells software and online proctoring services that IT certification programs and test centers can use via a private-label portal to deliver content over the Internet to test takers anywhere. "We stream encrypted test items one at a time and only decrypt them when rendered on the screen," says Cabell Greenwood, vice president of business development.

Kryterion offers IBT and online proctoring for IT certification programs. With online proctoring, "There's no opportunity for any level of collusion between the proctor and the test taker," says Dave Meissner, chief operating officer at Kryterion Inc.

CompTIA is working with Pearson VUE to deploy IBT, possibly later this year, and Bryan Kainrath, vice president for certification operations at CompTIA, is bullish on the technology's prospects. "We don't have to send the answer keys. We pull the items back, take it offline, do the scoring and send the results to the candidate. We can secure items for a lot longer."

But IBT isn't always a good fit. It requires significant bandwidth, and some testing centers, particularly in overseas locations where the most intellectual property theft occurs, don't have enough to reliably deliver tests in that way, Addicott says.

-- Robert L. Mitchell

That process can present an expensive challenge, however, because organized theft rings can compromise entire tests within three to five weeks of when they're first released, while most IT certification exams are refreshed every 12 to 15 months, Addicott says.

Kainraith admits that's a problem, but he thinks that questions take a bit longer to appear on brain-dump sites, and says CompTIA replaces tests at a rapid pace. "We're able to churn our items a lot faster than 12 to 15 months," he says, although he declined to say how fast.

While CompTIA has the scale and resources to turn over its test questions more quickly, smaller IT certification programs are more limited because the cost of building and maintaining tests ranges from hundreds of dollars per question to thousands of dollars per test item, according to Caveon.

Countermeasures: Tripping up the cheats

Catching cheaters has become its own science. "More candidates are sharing knowledge than we've seen in the past," says Kainrath. But both test centers and IT certification owners have ways of figuring out who's using stolen and shared test data, as well as who might be coming in to steal it.

In addition to using live proctors, Microsoft and others are moving toward online proctoring, which combines the use of a video camera with a live feed of the test taker's screen. While an online proctor is limited by what he can see on a video camera, it's easier to take immediate action against cheaters, Grieve says. Because they can look for suspicious activity at the question level, online proctors can identify cheating sooner and end the test before the candidate can see -- and possibly compromise -- the rest of the exam content.

How test centers stop cheaters

  • Use live and/or online proctors trained to spot suspicious activity
  • Ban all electronic devices from the test room
  • Perform forensic analysis of the test results to detect "anomalous" behavior that might indicate cheating
  • Use "Trojan horse" questions or other innovative test designs that tip off test program managers that the candidate studied stolen test content
  • Identity validation with photo ID, digital signatures, biometrics; photograph the subject and include it on the test report to thwart proxy test takers
  • Randomize order of multiple-choice test questions and answers
  • Use multiple exam versions containing completely different questions
  • Use scenario-based questions that require that the candidate perform an action by interacting with a simulation, rather than answering a multiple choice question
  • Use adaptive testing that varies each successive question based on the answer given to the previous one and stops the test as soon as proficiency is determined

-- Robert L. Mitchell

Test centers also have ways to tell if candidates have been memorizing stolen test questions and answers or sharing knowledge in chat rooms. "We leverage several different publication strategies and question types designed specifically to address cheating," Grieve says.

While Grieve declined to provide details, Addicott says some of the more basic anomalies include people who perform at "superhuman speeds" on the exam or who perform well on items that have been on the test a long time while scoring poorly on newer items -- an indicator that the individual may have memorized stolen test content.

Some IT certification exams also catch people who have memorized stolen test data by including "Trojan Horse" questions that deliberately include the wrong answer in the official answer keys. These questions don't count toward the candidate's overall score, but if the test taker answers a predetermined number of such questions with the incorrect answers listed in the answer key it's assumed that they used stolen information and the test is automatically invalidated, says Addicott.

Certification programs may also use different test designs in an attempt to thwart cheaters who have memorized test questions and answers. These include scrambling the order of questions on any given exam, randomizing the order of answers to multiple-choice questions, having a pool of questions from which to choose from for each test item and giving different candidates in the same test center entirely different versions of the test.

CompTIA and other certification organizations have also started to supplement or replace some of the standard multiple-choice test questions with adaptive and performance-based methodologies that are harder to compromise. With adaptive testing each successive question the user sees depends on whether or not he answered the previous one correctly. As soon as the test determines that the taker knows -- or doesn't know -- the content, the test ends. "It's a more refined manner of judging, but it also provides security," says Greenwood.

CompTIA is adding progressively more performance-based testing, which uses scenario-based questions that ask the user to perform specific actions in a simulated environment. Such questions are harder to memorize. "At that point it becomes easier just to study," says Kainrath.

And that, in a nutshell, is a key part of CompTIA's strategy. "We can't stop cheating, but we can make sure it takes a lot of time versus just studying."

Getting caught: A great way to kill a career

Wary of the damage that rampant cheating can have on an IT certification, like what some say happened in the 1990s (see sidebar, below), companies aren't just getting aggressive about catching cheats, they're clamping down by handing down more severe sanctions.

"We ban for life anyone who is caught cheating. They are not allowed to take any Microsoft exam ever again," says Grieve. And Microsoft, at its discretion, may also strip the candidate of any previously earned Microsoft IT certifications, she adds.

Devaluing a credential

As large numbers of people earned the Certified NetWare Engineer certification in the early 1990s, recalls Dave Meissner, chief operating officer at Kryterion, "there was concern about the quality of the professionals being certified. People could pass the CNE exam successfully purely by studying books," he says, which gave rise to the term "paper Certified NetWare Engineer." What's more, "there was a strong belief -- and perception is what matters -- that the test content was readily available, and the value of that CNE credential was diminished."

CompTIA is taking a harder line on cheating as well, "casting a wider net" by using data forensics in its investigations, says Kainrath. Today if you get caught cheating you won't get the certification and must wait a period of time, typically a year, before you can take the exam again. But CompTIA is considering changing that to a lifetime ban. "This year we'll roll out a harder policy," he says.

Poyiadgi says that he's seen cheaters lose their jobs in situations where employers sponsored the candidates. And if the person was selling test questions and answers, he or she may be prosecuted by law enforcement as well, he adds.

Kainrath marvels at the amount of time he says some people spend trying to cheat their way through IT certification exams. A certification like A+ serves only to validate the user's skills, he says, and if a cheater is hired or promoted based on false pretenses it hurts the cheater's career prospects as much as it does CompTIA's reputation. Ultimately, he says, "It's not doing them any good by faking it."

This article, Pirates, cheats and IT certs, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rmitch, or email him at rmitchell@computerworld.com.

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