Thursday, June 6, 2013

Hacking, education and India

(This post is the 2nd post in the one-month challenge.)

After yesterday's post, strangely I am itching to write. In the last 3 hours (I started this post just after lunch, so from 9-12) I have thought of at least 12 topics, of styles of writing, of short story plots. Yes, short story plots. I think the last short story I actually finished writing was for some contest in college 3rd year (which, I hate to admit, was 6 years ago!). So much for just the second day. (Recursive idea: Is there some scientific reason why this should have happened- cognitive/behavioral/whatever? Maybe I will write about it one of these days.)

So, on to today's topic.

I read this article 2 days ago when it was posted by my brother on facebook. Most people who read the article had one of the following reactions: a) Shock  b) "How could they?" c) "This is what I expect of them. I always knew this would happen" d) Other such reactions as shown in:

(Ya, I included the last one because unsurprisingly, a/b/c were the same reactions people had for the GoT Red Wedding.)

But jokes apart, I was shocked at their shock. This article was neither particularly well written nor intellectually stimulating nor was it worth being republished in 5-6 Indian newspapers as a glorified "hack". For those who didn't read the article- this guy basically looked up all of the ICSE results using some small script (which he calls a "hack", thus causing the word "hack" to go jump off the cliff and kill itself in shame.) Then he did some basic data analysis (which is the only thing commendable about the whole episode) and found that some values of marks have actually not been scored by anyone in the country. These values align across subjects. Since this is statistically impossible, he claims there is mark tampering.

Most of the shock people displayed was at how easy it is to get the marks of all the students in the country. This is the part where I am shocked about their shock. Seriously? Nobody knew you could look up anybody and everybody's roll numbers on the site? I remember it was common practice among us innocent 10th/12th graders to look up everybody's marks in the school. And I never had any idea of javascript or anything (neither at that time nor now). So the "hack" is just an automated version of something ridiculously simple to do even for a school grader.

Of course, part of the indignation was at the fact that our marks are not kept private. It is "sensitive information". First of all, I don't know why it is "sensitive information". Nobody uses your board exam marks except entrance exam committees (AIEEE/JEE/CAT and so on). Once that's done, you will forget your board marks forever. It is not like your bank account password or something (which, in India , is written in some small phone book in the drawing room by the woman of the house, left open for any hacker's 'perusal')

So then, the real reason people think this is sensitive should be because it is personal and people might not want to have everyone know it. That brings up an interesting question- "Do people really keep students' marks secret in India?" I remember how teachers used to announce the marks while distributing answer papers. So, for 12 years of your life, it is ok for the teacher to have everyone know your marks, but when its the board exam, you are embarrassed? In fact, when the board results come, they are usually followed by a series of phone calls- "How much did your son/daughter get?" "Oh, mine got centum in Maths. Yours didn't?" and so on. So, it's not like people don't blare out your marks to the world anyway.

Now, don't get me wrong. I am not saying that the CBSE/ICSE have done a very good thing by not building any kind of privacy feature -a simple rollnumber and password combination and slightly advanced Captcha would do. (Note- I said privacy feature. I don't call this "security" as much as "privacy"). I am just saying that this is NOT a surprising thing. Marks in India are next only to caste in determining your status as a student- status mostly among adults you don't usually care about. They are public, almost written on your forehead for everyone to see. So after growing up in India if someone is shocked or indignant at the lack of "privacy" (a word that is yet to be defined in the Indian nation, except among girls who refuse to share their notes), I can only think- "You are showing off". Or "you are trying to act like DCBAs* who, one fine day, become all shocked about how 'horrible' India is and how 'one can't live in that kind of an environment'". In a country where people ask you "Any good news?" after 2 months of marriage, do you really expect people to keep the marks of school children private?

Of course, I agree that as a system, the CBSE/ICSE MUST try to enforce some level of privacy in mark checking. But, the question about whether, as a society, we need to respect students' privacy is a completely different one.
And in the interest of not making this post any longer, I am leaving that question for another day..

Summarizing, my point here is- a) Knowing India, this whole article shouldn't come as a shock. b) Marks being kept private in the system is necessary, but the same may not be true as a society.

*DCBA= Desis Confused By Americans - I first heard this term here. I thank this great mind for coining such an apt term! XD

Tomorrow: About the mark tampering part of the article.

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