According to Statista, the number of connected wearable devices is expected to reach over 830 million by the year 2020. It is already estimated that about 25% of Americans own a wearable device, but for most individuals, the data collected by these devices is strictly for private consumption. In instances where it is not, the data is pseudonymized and aggregated with other people who own the same device. Imagine, however, that the company you worked for was monitoring your device and tracking your every move. They knew the number of hours you slept and the quality of that sleep. They knew what you were eating, and what your body was doing when your performance slowed. Using this information, they then gauged your aptitude as an employee, how well you were tracking to your potential, and the brightness of your future. Your next salary could potentially be based on this information, and if it didn’t look great, you may not even receive an offer to continue on as an employee.
While this may seem like a distant dystopia, this is the not so distant reality for many professional athletes. While much of the focus on the use of wearable technology in sports has focused on the positives (e.g. injury prevention, performance optimization, and preventative medicine), more and more athletes and player’s associations (essentially unions for athletes in a particular league) are beginning to push back against their usage-at least when they are applied inappropriately. In an article in Sports Illustrated, bioethicists Katrina Karkazis and Jennifer Fishman warn that they, “come with the risk of compromising players’ privacy and autonomy” and could “even cut short athletic careers.”
One of the biggest concerns, voiced by Michele Roberts, executive director of the NBA’s player’s association, is that the data could be used against players in contract negotiations. Teams may notice something in the wearable data that raises a red flag, and an injury that has yet to realize could prevent a player from receiving their next contract. This is an even bigger concern in a league like the NFL, where contracts are not guaranteed. Players could be cut based upon their running motion, ability to recover, or even their sleeping habits.
While consent is generally made at the individual level, a bigger concern is that players may not even have the autonomy to make the choice of whether or not to wear these devices for themselves. This decision is likely to be negotiated between player union representatives and league owners in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The CBA is a document that essentially sets forth the laws of the league and is renegotiated every few years. The player’s association may trade higher salaries for less say in what can and cannot be collected. This could inadvertently hurt the earning power of its athletes.
This raises another big question-who exactly owns the data? Is it the player, the team, the team’s medical staff? Conflicting goals and motivations could result in a major standoff and involve legislation about whether or not wearable technology is medical data that binds doctors to patient-doctor confidentiality laws. The implications of such a decision could extend far beyond sports.
Overall, this is something to definitely keep an eye on in upcoming CBA negotiations. As big data becomes a larger and larger part of society, issues like this are likely to spread from isolated industries like professional sports into our daily lives. Hopefully all of the ramifications are thought through thoroughly and our privacy is protected going forward.