Wearable technology continues to become more integrated into workout routines not only for professional athletes but high school and college athletes as well. Much of the biometric data is being collected without the knowledge of the wearers. Does this violate their privacy?
The rules exist in a gray area for now.
Wearables and tracking biometrics is a gray area that’s growing rapidly. Rules and regulations surrounding the tech may not be up to speed, but they’ll have no choice other than to catch up. With the state-by-state legalization of sports betting, the privacy of an athlete’s biometrics may go out the window if the prospect of money is on the line.
NFL players are required to wear on-field trackers to gather details on the player that are not considered private. In 2005, former NBA player Eddy Curry refused to submit to DNA testing requested by the Chicago Bulls, which led him to sign with the New York Knicks instead. So, where do we draw the line with biometric data collecting from wearables?
Wearables used by athletes are similar to technologies such as Fitbit Smartwatches, but they offer more complex data. The idea is to prevent injury and help wearers strive for peak ability. Two startup companies are leading this trend: Humon and Whoop.
Humon has a device called the Hex Tracker that rests on the athlete’s quadricep and measures their blood-oxygen levels, which provides a helpful measurement of endurance. Similar to products such as Fitbit, Humon provides performance summary and post-workout feedback.
Focusing on strain and recovery, Whoop looks at how tired are the athlete’s muscles, what are their stress levels, how well did they sleep the previous night among other details. It captures this data through a wristband the athlete wears as all times. The band can inform the athlete of the best times within the day that their bodies are ready to perform.
Where this technology starts to become problematic is the issue of who the data belongs to. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) said the patients, or athletes in this case, are in control of their data. The exception under HIPAA is if the individual’s employer requires them to maintain a certain level of physical fitness, as an article from SportTechie explains.
The rules vary among the different leagues. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which expires in 2020, dictates every uniformed player is required to wear Zebra sensors in his shoulder pads. The wearable tracks location, acceleration and speed. The NBA decided in 2017 to ban the use of athlete biometric data in contract negotiations and allow players to use variables as long as its voluntary, which is stated in the league’s CBA. The NBA also tracks its players like the NFL, but it uses smart cameras in partnership with Second Spectrum rather than with wearables. Major League Baseball is similar to the NBA: The CBA dictates data collected from wearables are confidential to the team but is available upon request.
Another way of retrieving biometric data is through blood testing. It leads to the complication of whether it is legal for employers to discriminate based on genetic information. The New York Giants already have begun blood testing players to identify biomarkers in order to improve performance. The real risk comes from the data being used in ways the individual doesn’t know about and may violate privacy laws.
Nikole Tower is a senior journalism student at Arizona State University.