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I recently had an online exam and failed in it. I know some of my other friends who cheated and passed. There is also a groupchat where they shared past paper exams. I told the teacher about the Whatsapp groupchat, sending screenshots of the messages and all. The professor responded, thanked me and said that he will share this with the exam board.

Now the issue is that the I am worried that the exam board will ask me to share my phone so that they can check it thoroughly. I don’t want them to see other private messages of my friends. I just wanted to share the groupchat (now actually I would prefer to go to the past and not share anything). I don't want to share anything else; I don't want more problems.

How do I avoid this? Can the teacher force me to share my phone, considering that I willingly snitched about the group chat? I live in Germany, so privacy rules are strict there. But I am nevertheless also looking for answers that apply to the circumstances in other countries.

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    Honestly, this seems like a question better aimed at the Law stack exchange Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 12:26
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    I don't have the time for an answer with proper links / research right now, but i can tell you that no professor in germany has even the slightest chance to check your phone. Only law enforcement can do that with a judges approval. You didn't post much information, but in general in eg an exam situation a professor need to catch you in the act of cheating to fail you for cheating, Suspicions aren't enough.
    – user116915
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 13:54
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    ok but if i show my phone they will see private messages which proves I and my friends cheated in other exams, I dont want to fail more exams you know? I know I am complete dumbass but this is my situation Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 21:24
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    you know, people are answering the question you asked; but you have yourself admitted to cheating so don't necessarily equate their statements about German privacy laws and traditions protecting you to any moral support for your cheating. You have a double problem, you have betrayed your co-cheaters who the exam board knows about. Maybe "past exam papers" are photocopies of past exam papers not typed up/written up samples from memory? None of my business but I found the question and the ensuing discussion too vapid and amoral. Cheating is wrong.
    – kodlu
    Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 6:22
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    Is reading past exams paper cheating?
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Sep 26, 2023 at 14:01

3 Answers 3

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As it doesn’t matter to this answer, I will here take your word that whatever happened was actually cheating. I will also ignore the nature of the contents you want to hide – it may as well be embarrassing fan fiction.

What will likely happen

For whatever it’s worth, I was involved in some exam-board hearings on cheating incidents in Germany as an examiner during the pandemic.

The exam board needs to collect evidence and you already gave them some. Now you can easily forge screenshots and protocols, while showing the respective content within the interface of the software is much more difficult. Therefore, the exam board may want to see this. However, to this end they do not need to use your phone themselves (and should not), but ask you to show the respective contents to them on your phone. They may ask you to navigate to certain points of interest or similar. Mind that all of this is them asking you to volunteer evidence (against others), not forcing you. In particular, if you do not want to show something, you can always refuse, with privacy being an excuse that should not raise any suspicion.

Mind that the exam board probably considers you on their side here and has no reason to suspect you, in particular since you failed the exam.

The worst that can happen

Cheating in exams is a minor offence (Ordnungswidrigkeit), see, e.g., § 63(5) of NRW’s university law. This usually only gets invoked in large-scale organised cheating or commercial cheating. Moreover, cheaters may escalate against the exam board’s decision to a court of law.

In such a case the court or investigators may ask you the same things as described above, and you can refuse to do certain things on the same reasons. In particular note that as a witness you have a privilege to refuse evidence (Zeugnisverweigerungsrecht) if you would be incriminating yourself or damaging your own honour.

Even if they seize your phone (which I highly doubt), they cannot force you to unlock it. For example, see this opinion by a lawyer, which states that this cannot be done even for grave criminal offences.

A note on suspicions

One of the things you apparently want to avoid are suspicions. There is no legal protection against those, after all it’s just a state of mind. However, given your depiction, I would not expect that much suspicion has fallen on you, and the only way it would is if you suddenly retract all cooperation with the exam board.

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  • So let's say they become suspicious of me, so what power do they have? Can they search my phone? So even if they are suspicious, based on suspicion alone they cannot do anything and don't suddenly gain any rights against me right? So technically I'm safe? Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 9:11
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    @randomUser786: See the second section: Even the police does not have the right to search your phone when investigating grave crimes and you cannot be forced to bear witness against yourself. Of course, it may still happen that your “friends” supply evidence to the exam board.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 9:46
  • Ok thx, my friends won't snitch Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 9:50
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    "my friends won't snitch" It's those strong assumption that put you in trouble. In a parallel universe there are two of your friend that changed the names in their contacts book, blaming on your "name" to have shared the past exams (they do as a safe way out, you failed the exam so it is not like they damage you by telling the exam board that you are the one that facilitated the cheating ... ). After all, the exam board is just checking the screens, they are no police, they cannot touch the phones ...
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Sep 26, 2023 at 14:02
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    @randomUser786 Your friends probably thought the same about you. "The other people in the group chat won't tell" is always a strong assumption, but particularly if it becomes evident that you told on them first. That said, my intuition is that chasing a cheating case where the student has failed anyway is probably low on the priority list of anybody.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 13:36
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It is unlikely that your professor can force you to do anything. It is also unlikely that you can force your professor to let you pass if you are suspected of cheating and refuse to refute that suspicion.

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    I would be absolutely astonished if a professor in Germany was allowed to use a refusal to look at your phone against you. IANAL, but I'm pretty sure that would barely trouble the judge were you to sue. Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 12:25
  • Please note that the asker added considerable information to their question after you answered.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 6:54
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    "It is unlikely that [you can] force your professor to let you pass if you are suspected of cheating" my experience is that most European countries, and presumably also Germany, do indeed have recourse boards where students can complain against unfair grades. And the professor definitely needs better arguments against a failing grade than "I suspected they cheated, no evidence" in front of such a board.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 13:39
  • @xLeitix: I think the (maybe too implicit) point is that sufficient evidence of you cheating can flip the burden of evidence to you, in which case your phone might contain the evidence that you did not cheat. For example, if I somebody used their phone during an exam, they might convince a professor that they did not use it for cheating (I disagree that you can have any reasonable evidence this way, but that’s another issue). Also bear in mind that this answer was written, when the question still lacked a lot of details.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Oct 3, 2023 at 13:54
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It would probably depend on the type of institution you were attending and on its policy on cheating.

  • Does it define taking a test as consent to search for evidence on cheating?
  • Does use of a phone during an exam violate the academic integrity expectation of the school or the particular course?
  • What is the procedure that faculty must follow to investigate suspected cheating?

I would peek in your student handbook as the answer you seek is there, and not in trying to find a £5 phone someplace in the EU.

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    Hi so this response is based on the updated story I added? Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 21:21
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    I think a country tag would improve this answer. In particular, this does not apply to Germany. Article 12 of the German constitution, which guarantees the "freedom of profession", is commonly interpreted in a very wide sense in Germany and thus has consequences for the access to exams that universities have to grant to their students. A policy that only allows students to participate in exams if they agree to give access to their phones to "search for evidence of cheating" would probably be ruled illegal as soon as anyone takes such a case to court. Commented Sep 23, 2023 at 15:43

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