Quick audit of the new law against exam cheats

Experts argue that the law doesn’t adequately address the cybercrime aspect of paper leaks, which is the primary path of criminals who hack question papers and sell them to aspirants and their families
The image is used for representational purposes only.
The image is used for representational purposes only.Express illustrations

NEW DELHI: Days after a contrite Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan took personal responsibility for the messed up national competitive exam system in the wake of the shocking NEET-UG and UGC-NET question paper leaks, the Centre notified a tough new law to check the proliferation of the exam mafia. Pradhan was candid about admitting institutional failure in the National Testing Agency (NTA), the body that conducts the competitive exams.

Soon, NTA's head Subodh Kumar Singh was axed and replaced by retired IAS officer Pradeep Singh Kharola, who is known to be a tough task master. Parallelly, a high-level committee of experts led by former ISRO chief Dr K Radhakrishnan was set up for institutional revamp in the NTA. Its terms of reference include reforming the mechanism of the exam process, strengthening the structure and functioning of the NTA and improving data safety protocols.

To crack down on the criminality amid the national uproar, the case was handed over to the CBI. It has since made arrests in different geographies and found serious gaps in the end-to-end supply chain of question papers from printing to transport and reaching the examinees in states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat.

The new law, the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024, imposes stringent penalties on the offenders, including imprisonment for 3-10 years and a fine of `1 crore. The service provider or any person associated with the exam process shall be deemed to have committed an offence if he fails to report the incidence of any unfair means or commission of any offence. However, it cannot be invoked in the present case, as it applies only for offences committed after the law comes into play.

Significantly, there already are state-specific laws to prevent copying. Yet, the mafia thrives. Recently, UP went to the extreme of clearing an ordinance to award life terms to the criminals involved in the racket. However, their ability to act as a deterrent continues to be suspect.

Gaps in the new law

As for the Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, experts said it has gaps that need to be addressed, including the hacking of question papers by cybercriminals, to make it more stringent. Though they welcomed the Act as a step in the right direction, the experts argued that it does not adequately address the cybercrime aspect of paper leaks, which is the primary modus operandi of criminals hacking question papers and selling them to greedy aspirants and their families.

Dr Vandana Gulia, a talent acquisition specialist in the information technology sector and a cyber law domain expert, said, “Cybercriminals are often a step ahead of investigators. It's called the dark web for a reason.”

Although the National Cyber Crime Threat Analytics Unit of the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre, under the Ministry of Home Affairs, managed to trace the leaked papers on Telegram, hackers and the cyber mafia are 10 steps ahead, Gulia told this paper.

Gulia described the dark web as a vast, self-contained universe that accesses sites with information not indexed online, including bank accounts, email accounts and databases. "They can manipulate data on various servers that are normally inaccessible. Accessing these sites requires special training," Gulia explained.

Anuj Agrawal, a specialist in cybersecurity and investigations, suggested that the Act should cover other common malpractices like the use of duplicates, solvers, Bluetooth devices and hacking of exam centres. “It should provide for digital exams and legalise random paper setting, which is currently restricted by a Supreme Court decision,” he said.

Possible misuse

There are also concerns about the law being misused and the lack of a defined timeline for re-exam in the event of their cancellation. “The Act fails to create a specialised agency to investigate paper leak scandals. Its broad scope could lead to misuse by authorities, resulting in false accusations or harassment without adequate checks and balances. Additionally, the Act does not address the root causes of the problem or lay down a timeline for re-examinations. States like Bihar and UP have their own anti-cheating laws, but their effectiveness is debatable. This law alone won't eliminate the problem,” added Shelal Lodhi Rajput, a lawyer specialising in dispute resolution and cyber law.

Judicial training

A notable gap in the bill, which was passed in Parliament in February this year, is the absence of provisions for specialised judicial training, experts said. As cyber crimes become more sophisticated, the judiciary must be equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to address these challenges effectively, experts added.

The bill also does not mention including such training for judicial officers, which would enhance their capability to handle cases arising from unfair practices in public exams, ensuring that justice is served efficiently. “The skill gap in specialised judicial training significantly affects the capability of legal practitioners and judges to handle complaints under the new law. Addressing logistical and financial challenges, balancing enforcement with a supportive environment, and dealing with organised cheating networks are all complicated by this gap,” Rajput explained.

The bill at present is an edifice but lacks the windows, grills, and safety doors, said N S Nappinai, senior advocate at the Supreme Court. “The rules seem barebones at this juncture. It would have been expedient to enumerate the procedures and guidelines in the rules notified. I anticipate notification of rules for cybersecurity processes required for computer-based tests and for the use, retention, and utilisation of computer resources in exam processes, as this is critical to the implementation of the Act,” she told this paper.

Standard operating procedure

The issue of paper leaks, often facilitated through social media and the dark web, underscores the need for a standard operating procedure (SOP) for investigators and the judiciary as part of the Act or its rules. Without this, convictions will be rare, they further said. “There is a need for establishing a robust database and effective training programmes for implementing the law. It remains a significant challenge,” said Agrawal.

“Strict security protocols to prevent leakage and unauthorised access to exam materials build public trust against paper leak scandals. The Act will act as a strong deterrent against malpractice, but some gaps need to be filled to make it more effective,” added Rajput.

Definition of unfair means under the new Act

Leakage of question paper of a competitive exam or answer key or part thereof

Collusion with others to effect leakage of question paper or answer key

Accessing or taking possession of the question paper or an Optical Mark Recognition response sheet without authority

Providing solution to one or more questions by any unauthorised person during a public exam

Directly or indirectly assisting the candidate in any manner unauthorisedly in the public exam

Tampering with answer sheets, including Optical Mark Recognition response sheets

Altering the assessment except to correct a bona fide error without any authority

Willful violation of norms or standards set up by the Centre for conduct of a public exam on its own or through its agency

Tampering with any document necessary for short-listing of candidates or finalising the merit or rank of a candidate in a public exam

Deliberate violation of security measures to facilitate unfair means in conduct of a public exam

Tampering with the computer network or a computer resource or a computer system

Manipulation in seating arrangements, allocation of dates and shifts for the candidates to facilitate adopting unfair means in an exam

Threatening the life, liberty or wrongfully restraining persons associated with the public exam authority or the service provider or any authorised agency of the government; or obstructing the conduct of a public exam

Creation of fake website to cheat or for monetary gain

Conduct of fake exam, issuance of fake admit cards or offer letters to cheat or for monetary gain

Who gets the stick

Offences: Cognizable, non-bailable, non-compoundable

Use of unfair means by student: Imprisonment: 3-5 years

Fine: Up to 10 lakh

Default: Additional imprisonment

For service provider:

Fine: Up to 1 crore + exam cost recovery

Barred: 4 years from public exam duties

Director/senior management’s involvement: Imprisonment:

3-10 years Fine: 1 crore

Default: Additional imprisonment as per IPC/Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita

For organised crime: Imprisonment: 5-10 years

Fine: Minimum 1 crore

Default: Additional imprisonment as per IPC/Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita

Institutional involvement: Property attachment and forfeiture

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