Microsoft cracks down on certification exam cheating

* Lifetime bans, sophisticated analysis tools highlight anti-piracy efforts

Microsoft is tackling certification exam cheating in a big way, with harsher penalties and a data forensics program that can find cheaters through statistical analysis of their exams.

Lifetime bans from Microsoft’s certification program will be handed down to anyone who cheats, commits fraud, or violates the non-disclosure agreements (NDA) that are designed to prevent test questions from being leaked to the public.

Under a soon-to-be released policy revision, “if you commit fraud, break the NDA, break any of our policies, it’s going to result in a lifetime ban from the Microsoft certification program,” says Peggy Crowley, the anti-piracy program manager for the Microsoft Learning department. “We used to have a year-long ban for some things and a lifetime ban for other things, and then we decided that cheating is cheating across the board, and why delineate between the two? So we decided to do a lifetime ban for all forms of cheating.”

Cheating takes many forms. Some cert candidates use old-fashioned crib sheets, while others communicate with fellow test-takers via text messaging, Crowley said. Bringing a phone into a testing center can result in a lifetime ban.

While test-takers face lifetime bans, test centers suspended for fraud are allowed to seek reinstatement after three years at the discretion of Microsoft, and if reinstated must agree to an enhanced security plan.

Crowley discussed the anti-piracy program during a Microsoft Webcast on June 25 titled Redmond CSI: Anti-Piracy and Microsoft Certification.

“There will always be cheating as long as there are tests,” Crowley noted. But Microsoft is using some high-tech methods to catch cheaters. The newest method is a data forensics program that identifies patterns indicative of cheating and piracy. Unusual response times or “aberrant” responses can indicate fraud, Crowley says. “Any time you take a test you leave data behind,” Crowley says.

Microsoft has long used statistical analysis in the course of fraud investigations. The difference now is Microsoft will launch enforcement actions based solely on statistical findings. Microsoft Learning feels comfortable taking this step because of new analyses that show the data forensics are so accurate there is a mere one-in-a-trillion chance of a false positive, Crowley says.

“Starting this summer we’re going to be using this as the sole evidence for enforcement actions,” she says. “With our data forensics we can actually tell when people have been using braindumps [Web sites that illegally sell copies of tests]. We are going to be able to enforce on that going forward.”

Test-takers can be banned and test centers closed based on data analysis, she said.

Microsoft is one of the biggest targets of exam cheaters and “braindump.” One analysis posted on Network World in March found 328 braindump sites selling Microsoft certification exams, more than any other vendor’s tests. Cisco exams were being sold on 326 braindump sites.

In a recent newsletter I wrote about some of the measures Cisco is taking to tackle exam cheating, including continuous altering of tests to thwart cheaters, penalties levied against individual cheaters and legal actions against braindump sites Microsoft offered a significantly more detailed picture of its own fraud-fighting program in the 40-minute Webcast led by Crowley.The stakes are high in certification testing, from the profit-seeking test centers and braindump sites to the IT pros who shell out time and money to obtain valuable certifications and employers who rely on certifications to hire qualified workers.

Microsoft has its own costs to worry about too. “It costs about $150,000 to create a new exam,” Crowley said. “In a worst-case scenario, we can see - 24 hours after publication of our new exam - the contents of it on a braindump site.”

Microsoft takes legal action against braindump sites, but Crowley notes that financial limitations prevent Microsoft from suing everyone. Lawsuits are a last option; the goal is to secure the testing program without breaking the bank.

“We don’t sue everybody. It’s the most expensive option,” Crowley says. “We are not Windows, we are not Office. We are just Microsoft Learning.”

Microsoft typically sues in civil court rather than pursue criminal charges. It’s hard to convince law enforcement to take an exam cheating case because it’s not as “sexy” as software piracy, according to Crowley.

Microsoft’s more common actions include sending cease-and-desist letters and take-down notices to braindump sites, ISPs and domain name registrars requiring the disabling of access to Web sites and removal of files from file shares. It can become a “whack-a-mole” game, with braindump sites closing and reopening under a different name the next week, but the overall effect discourages the selling of Microsoft’s intellectual property, Crowley says.

Microsoft gathers evidence in part by hiring third parties with law enforcement backgrounds who then purchase pirated copies of tests. Microsoft also uses an automated program that crawls the Internet to look for instances of infringement.

Microsoft’s enforcement actions can extend to entire countries. Testing can be suspended if Microsoft finds evidence of cheating.

“The best example is in our beta program, we have suspended delivering betas to China, India and Pakistan because of security reasons,” Crowley said.

Microsoft Learning is updating all of its policies and aims to post them online this summer. One change that could be of interest to many people involves test re-takes. Candidates formerly were allowed to re-take a test any time they wanted, Crowley said. Now they need to wait 24 hours, and if they fail a second time they have to wait two weeks. A candidate cannot take a test more than five times in one year unless he or she receives permission from Microsoft.

In addition to policy updates, Microsoft is getting ready to launch a new exam Web site that will offer guidance on studying and on how to stay within the rules of the testing program.

Some test-takers have unknowingly cheated, but there are warning signs to watch out for, Crowley said. For example, if a training program emphasizes topics “you need to know to pass the exam,” or guarantees that you will pass, there could be fraud involved. Some Web sites simply put the word “braindump” in the title, making it pretty obvious.

Microsoft is looking for help from anyone who’s aware of braindump sites or other evidence of test fraud. Tips can be sent to tctips@microsoft.com. All e-mail to this address is treated as confidential, according to Crowley.

What do you think of Microsoft’s plan to tackle exam cheating? Feel free to post a comment below or send me an e-mail.

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