By Lincoln Davidson
Lincoln Davidson is a research associate for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Each year, millions of Chinese high school graduates take a two-day college entrance examination, colloquially known as the gaokao, that determines whether they’ll be able to attend university. The nine-hour test—which covers history, English, calculus, physics, chemistry, political theory, and more—is highly competitive, and students in the past have resorted to stolen questions and even IV drips to help them prepare. But as this year’s exam approaches, the test’s high stakes are pushing some to resort to technological means to give their score a boost.
On Wednesday, the Chongqing Evening Paper reported (in Chinese) that hackers claiming to have stolen copies of the questions were selling them online at a rate of 6,000 RMB (approximately $970 USD) for two sections. When a reporter from the paper called them up, she was shown evidence that they had previously hacked into a university’s servers to change a student’s grades. However, because the network for the city’s department of education is more trouble to access, the “hackers” asked for payment up front. The city’s testing center denied that it was possible for hackers to gain access to the test, saying that it is not put online prior to exam day.
That won’t stop innovative, tech-savvy Chinese teenagers from finding other ways to get ahead on the gaokao, however. Last year, Chinese police released photos of dozens of creative devices they’d caught students using to cheat on the test. The gadgets, which look like the kinds of tools James Bond might use, include glasses that wirelessly transmit pictures of the test questions to someone at another location and cell phones hidden in a shirt that allow a test-taker to get help from outside.
Officials in the city of Luoyang, Henan Province, are hitting back this year with a drone (in Chinese) they plan to deploy to catch cheaters who use wireless devices to communicate with individuals outside the test area. The drone will monitor radio signals in the vicinity of testing centers and help officials identify where the signals are originating from. Once they’ve locked in on a signal, it will be easier to spot the offending student. Students who violate the exam rules are barred from taking the test for three years; adults who help them face time in prison if caught.
While Chinese officials have used new technology to try to catch cheaters in the past, the market has been quick to respond with measures to avoid detection. Last year, in an attempt to catch individuals hired by students to sit the exam for them, officials in Henan began using fingerprint-recognition technology to spot the surrogates. Although officials managed to nab a few scofflaws, others avoided detection by wearing film on their fingers that mimicked the prints of the student who hired them.
Given the importance of the test to a student’s future, cheaters will continue to find creative ways to avoid detection. Drones, biometrics, and other cutting-edge technologies seem excessive, but they may help catch students who’ve moved beyond scribbling notes on the palms of their hands.