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Privacy Perspectives | Biometric monitors bring fresh privacy concerns to pro sports Related reading: FTC officials talk obtaining illicit algorithms, scrutinizing data harvesting




I have been a sports fan my entire life. Ever since my dad took me to my first baseball game, where Boston Red Sox right fielder Darren Bragg hit a grand slam off of then-Seattle Mariners super-mullet fireballer Randy Johnson, I was hooked. (I might also be the only person who remembers Darren Bragg, besides Darren Bragg).

Watching countless games on TV, I’ve seen the evolution of the TV broadcasts go from simple graphics to an overwhelming onslaught of information. Ever since I started working at the IAPP, it’s been hard not to view everything without thinking about all the privacy implications surrounding the things I love. Take this example from our Sam Pfeifle, who wrote last summer about the coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics and how the athletes were constantly put under an invasive spotlight.

Those privacy concerns centered around the way every aspect of an athlete's life and performance are covered, but there is another burgeoning issue that runs parallel to standard employee wellness programs.

For example, a continuous biometric monitor has been spotted on two different National Basketball Association players during the last two seasons. The device was created by a company called WHOOP and is designed to monitor an athlete's heart rate, skin temperature, and other health metrics around the clock.

Pro sports leagues have reacted in varying ways to the possibilities this kind of technology offers.

Major League Baseball recently approved the use of the device for its players within games, marking the first time any American sports league will allow its players to wear a biometric device during game play. It's worth pointing out, MLB made the decision that teams cannot force the athletes to wear the monitor. (Side note: If these devices take off, and there aren’t any "WHOOP, there it is!" jokes, I’m going to be personally disappointed).

The NBA, however, has taken a different stance. NBA guard Matthew Dellavedova was told by the league to stop wearing his device, and Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan was spotted wearing one under a black wristband. The league is investigating the latter incident. (Spoiler alert: Jordan still can’t shoot free throws).

Ultimately, the trackers raise several privacy concerns. Who owns the data? What if a player doesn't want the team to see his or her information? Does the third party have access to the player's data? Since fitness trackers are not covered by HIPAA, what protections are put around the biometrics collected from use? Who is liable if the highly coveted information is breached?

The NBA has perhaps already jumped on this train of thought. The league stopped Dellavedova from using the device partially because wearable data is expected to be a big topic when the league negotiates its next collective bargaining agreement. Players fear negative data may be used against them during contract negotiations.

This also comes at a time where employee monitoring is still a contentious topic. A long-standing debate has revolved around employee wellness programs, as employers essentially force their staff to hand over health data in exchange for cash incentives and insurance premium savings. The stakes in an athlete's case are far greater, as a team could hold the negative information over the player's head during contract negotiations, costing them millions of dollars. 

Call me crazy, but I don't think professional athletes want their teams to keep such a close eye on them.

Plus, what would happen if the highly coveted data was hacked and the players' information was released to the public? Would the team be responsible? A recent ruling involving UPMC suggests they may be off the hook if a breach were to occur.  

WHOOP founder and CEO Will Ahmed addressed some privacy concerns recently, saying the device has 27 different privacy settings to allow players and teams to share some information, while keeping other data private. Sources within the ESPN article say WHOOP has no rights to the data either. For the data to be used on a television broadcast, both the player and team need to provide consent.

Will players ultimately be coerced to publicly share their data like other statistics to enhance the "fan experience"?

Sure, it would be great to watch a pitcher's heart-rate go nuts in a bases loaded situation, but how might that affect the player down the road? If it were to be known a pitcher's heart-rate accelerated in high-leverage situations, and teams can correlate his heart rate with a poor performance, that pitcher may not be able to demand the higher salary normally handed out to ace pitchers, or closers looking to finish off a tightly contested ballgame. Position players could be affected as well, as their biometrics could be used to measure their performance with the bases loaded in late inning situations, or if a fly ball were to go over their head.

If you are involved in the privacy industry in any capacity, this will all sound familiar. Researchers are constantly looking for ways to use data without compromising individuals’ privacy, and consent is a major part of the General Data Protection Regulation. If wearables start to make their way to, say, the Premier League, or if foreign athletes want to use the information overseas, these issues could manifest on a global scale.

Sports have come a long way from people thinking it was a good idea to play hockey without helmets, or anyone thinking a leather helmet could protect a football player. Technology has become an integral part in how athletes keep themselves in peak shape.

As those technological influences grow, so will those concerns about privacy. And though athletes are on the biggest stage, the issues are also reflected in standard employee wellness programs. Will professional sports ultimately influence how these programs are deployed? Time will tell. 

photo credit: acase1968 Charlie Blackmon via photopin (license)


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