AIIMS, NORCET nursing exam, hacking
According to a cyber expert, hackers break into a protected server using advanced open-source like Kali Linux which is geared to do various information security tasks. Pic: iStock

AIIMS' online nursing exam mired in controversy over allegations of hacking yet again

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Months after the servers at the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) were compromised in a severe cyber attack, India’s premier institute is caught up in a controversy over alleged hacking and malpractices in its online Nursing Officer Recruitment Common Eligibility Test (NORCET) yet again. NORCET is one of India’s largest nursing recuritment exams.

This has once again raised questions over the safety of its servers and the softwares used by the leading institute to conduct its national level examinations.

After the online NORCET-4 was held on June 3, a few days later, several students who had sat for the exam wrote a letter to the AIIMS administration claiming that they had received screenshots and photos of more than 25 questions, which had been a part of their exam question paper.

Since it was an online exam and the students were strictly not allowed to take their mobile phones into the exam hall, they expressed their concern about this breach in the exam software. They requested the director to initiate an independent and time-bound probe into how an external software was used to manipulate the test.

This is however not the first time this is happening with NORCET.

AIIMS., NORCET , screenshot
A sample of the screenshot sent to the students sitting for AIIMS’ online nursing exam, NORCET

AIIMS takes cognisance 

Speaking to The Federal, a highly placed source at AIIMS, pointed out that a similar case of manipulation and hacking was reported in 2021 too. At that time, the administration took action by forming a committee to look into the alleged malpractices and reportedly revamped the network. This was done to ensure that such incidents don’t reoccur in the future.

The source also stated that the administration has taken cognisance of the recent written submission given by the students and has formed a committee with technical experts to look into the issue.

Also read: AIIMS cyberattack: Three months on, key questions remain unanswered

On being probed further, the source said that the administration refused to comment on the matter until the investigation is over.

The Nursing Officer Recruitment Common Eligibility Test (NORCET-4), an online exam was conducted on June 3, in various cities for the appointment of more than 3,000 nursing officers at 19 AIIMS and central government hospitals across the country. But, the candidates who sat for the exam were disturbed and questioned how the screenshots of the exam questions appeared on the doctors and nurses WhatsApp groups.

Highlighting the issue

Bhoola Ram Meena, (28), a student who undertook the test from Jaipur, Rajasthan narrated how screenshots of the test started appearing on the doctors and nurses WhatsApp groups on the same evening of their exam.

“The exam started at 9 am and got over at 12 pm. When we came out of the exam, we noticed screen grabs of the test on our WhatsApp groups and other social media platforms. How can this be possible if there wasn’t any foul play? Students were strictly asked to deposit their cell phones to the examiners before entering the examination hall. After the exam, we had to submit our admit cards too,” said the aspirant from Rajasthan.

Serious allegations

Speaking to The Federal, Vikas Dukiya, (26), who did his exam at a centre in Noida sector 62, wants the AIIMS administration to probe the matter with utmost seriousness. He said that such manipulation is only possible in two cases – one, when somebody from the exam conducting authority indulges in wrongdoing or the server in which these exams are conducted are severely compromised by hackers.

Pointing out that previous cases of similar wrongdoings were also reported to the AIIMS administration in Delhi, he added, the students who prepare diligently for the exam bear the maximum brunt of such manipulation.

However, the question remains as to who would send the screenshots to the WhatsApp group and reveal that some malpractice is going on is also a mystery.

Also read: How hackers can access potential ‘gold mine’: AIIMS cyberattack a case in point

Favouring female candidates

Sankar Chaudhary, (28), who wrote the exam from Ajmer, Rajasthan, complained that students had written about “manipulation” of the exam software at examination centres but to no avail. He also criticised the nursing exam favouring female candidates over their male counterparts and said: “A decision was taken to introduce a policy of reservation in the NORCET exam. 80 per cent seats are now reserved for the female candidates, whereas the male candidates have to compete within the 20 per cent bracket. Added to this institutionalised disadvantage, we have to fight against unfair practices such as hacking and manipulation. It almost nullifies our chances.”

The technical angle

Explaining how hackers gain access to protected servers and systems, Rahul Nagar, a Delhi-based cyber expert said, hackers break into a protected server using advanced open-source like Kali Linux which is geared to do various information security tasks.

The Kali Linux penetration testing platform contains a vast array of tools and utilities.

“Such forms of hacking are done by a group of individuals and such instances of hacking are being repeatedly reported. Cybersecurity professionals and IT specialists are also involved in such unfair exercises,” added the specialist.

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