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NLS quietly deletes FAQ mention of disappeared ‘SAB Tool’, which may have been crucial in allowing NLAT malpractice

NLAT FAQs were furtively amended today, removing mention of the SAB Tool anti-cheating software that had been dropped
NLAT FAQs were furtively amended today, removing mention of the SAB Tool anti-cheating software that had been dropped

NLSIU Bangalore has furtively updated the 64 frequently asked questions (FAQs) relating to the National Law Aptitude Test (NLAT) on its website to remove mention of its decision to drop the the so-called “Safe Assessment Browser (SAB) Tool” from its online home-proctored entrance test.

The software, which is widely acknowledged in the online examination industry as being a vital component to conducting a (more) secure online exam and without which you have only little data with which to prove certain kinds of cheating, had initially been mandatory for candidates to download in order to take the NLAT.

Then, on 11 September, one day before the exam as shown by a cache of the NLAT FAQ page of 12 September, via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, NLS had for the first time officially confirmed that the SAB Tool was not required anymore. On the FAQs it asked and answered the following question (which we had reported at the time, after also having put the question to NLS several times in requests for comments on this story we had published):

I have not received any link to download Safe Assessment Browser (SAB) Tool and can’t find any such software on the internet.

SAB is no longer required for the exam. Please read the updated guidelines on technical/system requirements here.

However, around 12:45pm today, just around the time that the Supreme Court had finished hearing the day’s arguments in the NLAT challenge, adjourning to tomorrow, the question and answer relating to the SAB mysteriously disappeared from the FAQ web page.

We have reached out to NLS for comment on why this item was removed from the FAQs.

What it used to say on the NLS FAQs (emphasis added)
What it used to say on the NLS FAQs (emphasis added)

The disappearing SAB Tool

The SAB Tool, as we had explained in our previous reporting, appeared to be important. It had been announced as a technological requirement initially, when the exam had only been available on Windows PCs, requiring every candidate to download the piece of separate software.

The technical requirements (PDF) for the NLAT had initially announced: “15. Candidates must download and install the ‘Safe Assessment Browser (SAB) Tool’ – registered candidates shall be provided with a link to download the SAB tool in advance of the examination.”

Software such as this ‘SAB Tool’, in the online testing industry, generally more closely monitor the computer that the exam is being taken on to ensure you are not running other software in the background, such as, for instance, screen recorders, other web search utilities, calculators or cheat sheets (see a more detailed technical explanation below in: Why the SAB is important).

After the NLAT faced criticism about how exclusive access to Windows OS made the exam less accessible, NLS announced that the NLAT would also be available to MacOS, Linux and Android operating systems (OSs), purely via a web browser.

However, at the same time, it appears to have also dropped the requirement for the SAB Tool, and point 15 about this had disappeared from the latest version of the technical requirements, which is the version currently uploaded on the NLS NLAT page.

An issue of communication

Besides the SAB Tool issue, part of the problem with the NLAT has been unclear communication.

(We would again point to our interview with the LSAT-India head, who had in July just held the first online-proctored law admissions exam this year, and much of which would predict NLAT’s troubles: “We asked if he had any potential advice or lessons learned for the CLAT and the AILET, which will only hold their exams late next month. Number 1, according to Abdul-Kareem: ‘Develop a clear communication channel with students and over communicate... across multiple channels..., whether it be email, WhatsApp, Telegram, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.’")

Although NLSIU had often been admirably prompt and responsive in trying to answer candidates’ questions, as well as issuing regular press releases and updates on its microsite, one problem was the plethora of communication channels, each of which carried different pieces of of the whole.

NLSIU Bangalore had been primarily answering many queries of candidates and also journalists by updating its FAQ page.

But some of the bigger changes and announcements also made its way to NLS’ official social media channels, such as Twitter and Instagram; only the most important announcements (like exam timings, re-takes or lodging complaints against the exam) were pushed to candidates via email.

And on top of that, the homepage of the exam portal, at admissions.nls.ac.in, continued hosting PDFs of fairly important announcements about the exam and an archive of press releases.

Frequently mixed up questions

The FAQs in particular, proved a pain for candidates in practice due to the terrible design of the page. Say a candidate would visit the page seeking to find out the latest updates, there was no chronology in what was most recent in what-soon-grew to 63 individual frequently asked questions.

Instead, you would have to click on each sub-sections in turn (now having grown to 10 in number) and then browse through each of the unordered subsets of those 63 questions trying to spot any new additions, modifications or changes to the wording or details in existing questions, and so on.

On the bright side, it would have been great practice for the reading comprehension section and also preparation for the reality of much law firm practice at the most junior (and sometimes also more senior) levels.

But even law firms usually use software to compare the changes between different drafts of contracts, which is what we started doing with the FAQs.

Indeed, this jumble of FAQs and the practical inability to figure out what’s new without getting a headache or software, was the main reason we had launched our first live blog of the NLAT on 8 September.

We had hoped to be able to communicate to candidates all important or interesting changes to the page they might have missed, to make their life slightly easier at such a stressful time.

And since we were still checking up on the page, today we had received the alert that NLSIU had removed something from its FAQ page.

Why the SAB was important

If this SAB Tool software had been present in the NLAT it would in all likelihood not have allowed someone to livestream their actual Saturday exam session to us live via a software as basic and widely available as Zoom.

We had asked NLS several times since Saturday to identify the candidate who had livestreaming to us via Zoom, but understand they have neither been able to do so nor could the browser-based exam software record information that would have allowed them to do so.

According to marketing materials of a vendor of online exam software (as previously reported), “locked down browsers fail the security test”, noting that “you need complete device control”. The presentation of the vendor explained:

Browser-based exam security (i.e. locked down browser) is online software that is limited in protecting the integrity of exams. While exam takers are prevented from performing certain actions like copying or printing webpages or visiting other websites, there is nothing that prevents them from employing tactics that effectively bypass the exam browser’s security measures altogether.

Using virtual machine software, or “VMware”, is just one of the many tactics in which the security of locked down exam browsers can be compromised. Virtual machine software allows computers to run multiple operating systems over a single physical host computer [1], which is what most exam browser software is intended to prevent. This method can be made all the easier for exam takers with websites like YouTube and Reddit that can offer step-by- step instructions on how to bypass an exam locked down browser’s security with VMware.

There are also documented instances of exam takers typing a URL into a text-only answer box within the exam locked down browser itself, that is then automatically hyperlinked. Exam Takers are able to click on the hyperlink to open a separate browser tab, opening another door for cheating [2].

While specific software tools are also unlikely to be foolproof, they make it considerably more difficult for candidates to circumvent an online test that is served via a standard web browser.

As it was held, the NLAT test was fundamentally in an identical position to any other website, such as LegallyIndia.com.

And while it is possible to capture some fairly advanced and unique information about your system (including the keys you press while in the browser window, where your mouse moves, your current screen resolution, some details about your operating system and browser, including potentially the plug-ins that are running in your browser), that information ultimately ends where your browser ends.

This means that (fortunately) neither Legally India nor any other website can find out what is open in the other tabs on your browser, short of actually hacking your system. Nor can a website know whether you are currently running other software on your computer, including Zoom, Microsoft Word, Skype.

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