Experts urge fixes to new exam law

Though experts welcomed the bill as a step in the right direction, they argued that it does not adequately address the cybercrime aspect of paper leaks.
Image used for representational purpose.
Image used for representational purpose.

NEW DELHI: The newly notified Public Examinations (Prevention of Unfair Means) Act, 2024, has gaps that need to be addressed, including the hacking of question papers by cybercriminals, to make it more stringent in stopping the large-scale paper leaks and malpractice reported in India over the last several years, experts said.

The bill, which was notified on June 24 in the wake of the NEET-UG fiasco and the cancellation of three other examinations affecting 1 million students, imposes stringent penalties, including imprisonment between three and ten years and a fine of ₹1 crore. It aims to prevent unfair means to bring greater transparency, fairness, and credibility to the public examinations system.

Though experts welcomed the bill as a step in the right direction, they 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 then 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 (I4C), under the Ministry of Home Affairs, managed to trace leaked papers on Telegram, hackers and the cyber mafia are ten steps ahead," Gulia told this paper.

Image used for representational purpose.
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Gulia describes 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 explains.

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.

There are concerns about the law being misused or the lack of a timeline for exams that have been cancelled. "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 Uttar Pradesh 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.

A notable gap in the bill—which was passed in Parliament in February this year but had not come into effect as the government had not notified it—is the absence of provisions for specialised judicial training, experts said. As cybercrimes 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 examinations, ensuring that justice is served efficiently. Rajput explains, "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."

"The bill, for now, is an edifice but lacks the windows, grills, and safety doors," said N.S. Nappinai, Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India. "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 utilization of computer resources in examination processes, as this is critical to the implementation of the Act," she told this paper.

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, experts further said. “There is a need for establishing a robust database and effective training programs for implementing the law, which remains a significant challenge,” said Agrawal. "Strict security protocols to prevent leakage and unauthorised access to examination 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.

Image used for representational purpose.
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