Secret techniques to pass exams: the black market in bluetooth, wireless devices, and leaked test questions

28-10-2020 04:29

 Peregraf- Saman Omer

The black market for electronic devices used to cheat on exams is growing in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The story begins in China and it has not yet fully brought under control in the KRI.

I had the opportunity to supervise an exam hall for the 12th grade national exam in Ranya, a city 130 km northwest of Sulaymaniyah. Our mission was to prevent cheating.

Apart from screening the students, we also were searching for Bluetooth devices, headphones and mobile phones. Our weapon was the “Garrett” metal detector, the same device used by security guards at malls and public facilities.

The Garrett did not detect any cheating devices after scanning the students twice so the teachers were satisfied that everything was under control. Later, a committee from Ministry of Education arrived with more advanced equipment the size of a radio. After visiting some other halls, they reached our hall.

It was 9:30 in the morning, an hour after the exam started, the ministry’s team checked the students one by one. While screening the last student, their equipment detected a sound wave from an electronic device.

It was discovered that a student hid a Bluetooth microphone deep in his ear, which was undetectable to the naked eye. He was using it to listen to someone who was giving him instructions through a wireless device outside the exam hall.

The ministry’s sophisticated device is capable of detecting sound waves. The Directorate of Education in Ranya brought two to three of these devices after an increase in cheating cases, but there are not enough of them.

This was a new experience for me and my teacher colleagues. After witnessing what had unfolded in the exam hall, I decided to investigate this novel method of cheating.

My investigation began among the students but gaining their permission to admit to previous instances of cheating and to open up about it was impossible.

After great effort, Khorshid Abbas (a pseudonym) was willing to speak provided that we not use his real name. He had used a Bluetooth device to pass an exam in the 2018-2019 school year.

“I was not doing well in the subject, but with other subjects I was fine, so I thought of using Bluetooth equipment even though I knew that what I was doing was wrong and reckless,” Khorshid told Peregraf. He also added that he reached a device seller through a friend.

He described his negotiations with the merchant: “We agreed that I would rent the device for 150 USD for an exam and would return it later. But later the seller said that there was someone else who want to buy it and he had only one, ‘so if you don’t buy it, I will sell it to him.’”

Khorshid agreed to buy the device for 600 USD on the condition that [the merchant] would read the answers to the exam questions to him.

“Half an hour after the answer sheets were distributed, I heard a voice from the device. Someone I did not know was reading the answers for an hour. He was going too fast and I could not catch up and find the answers on the answer sheet immediately. Later, I managed to respond to some questions.”

The wireless equipment is capable of connecting from up to 500 meters to one kilometer. Khorshid became disconnected after an hour when security forces were stationed around the exam hall.

Khorshid’s only goal was to pass the exam, and he did so through the cheating.

 Searching for sellers

After speaking to the student, I set off to the market where the electronics sellers were. Most of the shopkeepers gave me the same answer: “Do not waste your time, you cannot find it here. What you want is being sold online.”

I began to search on Facebook for the pages and accounts advertising Bluetooth microphones. One post read: “Those who are sick of studying can make high marks using a Bluetooth microphone. Grade 12, come on down!”

I began to massage the managers of these pages and accounts as a customer.

The first seller was ready for a deal, but after I introduced myself as a journalist he stopped the conversation. I lost my first lead.

To obtain more information, it would be necessary to interact with these accounts as a customer.

Samir Arsahad is a pseudonym for a seller in Sulaymaniyah. As soon as I asked if microphone is available, he answered “yes” and sent me pictures and prices of different models.

“This type is the best and wireless blockers cannot block it. It works within a radius of two kilometers and you can hear the one calling you outside. The battery is guaranteed to last from 6 to 8 hours.”

The seller did not want to discuss the details of his work.

During my search, I found Bahez Farzand, a pseudonym for a microphone seller in Erbil. He said “I have been working for five years. During exams this year, I sold 70 microphones, each for around 600 thousand to 800 thousand IQD [500 to 670 USD]. Now that the demand has decreased and exams have stopped, I make less profit and sell them for 300 USD.”

If we assume that the seller had sold each microphone for 600 thousand IQD, he has earned 42 million IQD for selling 70 devices.

“I am in a position that no one can arrest me. If I were arrested, I would free myself by a phone call and humiliate the one who arrested me,” said Farzand, insinuating that he works in one of the security agencies.

The seller’s words suggest that some of those who are behind this business work in the KRG’s security services and use their positions to engage in such businesses.

The trend is not only in the sale of Bluetooth devices, but in the growth of an online black market in test questions.

“For the sale of Bluetooth devices and answer sheets” is a name of one Facebook account. After introducing myself as journalist and asking for the moderator’s number, he was willing to cooperate. He told Peregraf, “I work for Asaiysh [General Security], so my number is not always available. I don’t have a storefront or a particular place of business, but I am everywhere!”

“The source of business is in the Kurdistan Region, but I get Bluetooth devices directly from China; the hardware comes from China to Baghdad and from Baghdad to the Kurdistan Region. In addition, we sell question sheets; we have teachers and students who sneak mobile phones into exam halls and take pictures of the questions. We work as a team,” said the anonymous seller.

Electronic devices used for cheating on exams consist of three pieces of hardware: an elastic wireless device, a small device the width of two fingers, and a microphone. The latter two are kept with the students.

 What have the Ministry of Education and Police done?

Cheating is a technique used both by unsuccessful students as well as by high ranking officers who have left school long ago and now return to take civil service exams. Students who are weak in 12th grade Math and English have also relied on cheating to graduate. To most of the students in the Kurdistan Region, Math and English are two of the most difficult subjects.

The menu of cheating tactics had previously included notes on small pieces of paper or the students’ inscription of notes on their arms and forearms. Students also hid mobile phones and microphones in their clothes, but wireless blockers and internet shutdowns during exam hours limited their effectiveness.

Although regulations implemented by Ministry of Education were rigorously enforced, they could not fully control the phenomenon of cheating. Question sheets were often disclosed prior to the exams.

The General Directorate of Evaluations and Examinations in the Ministry of Education has not released statistics on the frequency of cheating because disclosure of the numbers may have a “detrimental effect” on cases and the ministry thought it better to keep the numbers confidential.

Karem Latef, General Director of Examinations in the ministry told Peregraf: “The issue of cheating exists in all developed countries. In the Kurdistan Region, cheating students are not legally sanctioned with imprisonment but they will fail for the school year.”

“We officially informed the Ministry of Interior about the purpose of importing devices [used to cheat] and proposed that no one should not be allowed to sell them. We also asked for an investigation into the proliferation of these gadgets, but to no avail,” Karem Latef said.

At the Kurdistan Region’s border entry points, goods and devices are smuggled into the region, including electronic devices.

It is easy for the Kurdistan Region’s businesspeople to conduct business with China and the markets are now full of goods and devices made in China.

The Kurdistan Region Police are candid about the fact that “microphones and Bluetooth connected to elastic devices are being imported to Kurdistan and can be easily found in the market.”

Erbil Police spokesperson, Hogr Aziz, says that these devices are used primarily for security purposes, but IT experts work on them and use them for other purposes.

“We cannot distinguish those who use [this equipment] for security purposes from those who use it for cheating. Even though legal regulations have been enforced against those who have used and sold them, it cannot eliminate this phenomenon,” said Hogr Aziz, denying that police officers are engaged in the traffic of wireless equipment used to cheat.

Cheating is regarded to be unethical and socially unacceptable; even those who are cheating shy away from talking about it. To eliminate it, raising awareness and changing examination and evaluation methods can help reducing the frequency of cheating. Furthermore, equipment that can detect Bluetooth devices is available on Amazon for 70 to 80 USD, so the Ministry of Education can easily purchase it.

  This investigative report was written by Saman Omer Muhammad for Peregraf as part of the Intensive Journalism Workshop funded by the German Foreign Office.