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Athletes personal data at risk


An athlete’s every step, heavy collision, restless night, missed period or spike in heart rate can be recorded.

But what is happening with the ever increasing amounts of electronically collected personal data is of concern to experts.

Netball player Te Huinga Reo Selby Rickit wearing a tracking device.

Auckland University Associate Professor Gehan Gunasekara believed the rapid rise in the capture, aggregation, and processing of athlete data through body-worn sensor devices, athlete management systems, and on and off-field technologies often started with good intentions.

“A lot of this stuff could be used for research purposes to be able to develop better programmes or better training programmes and that is a legitimate purpose for using it,” Gunasekara said.

“But if the data is held for longer than it’s needed or is not securely stored it could be hacked, it could be stolen, those are the kinds of risks people need to be aware of.”

A discussion paper from the Australian Academy of Science and the University of Western Australia’s Minderoo Tech & Policy Lab warned the “degree of personal surveillance and body monitoring currently tolerated in professional sport may be permitted in community sports and other workplaces if the current status quo of collecting excessive personal data remains unchallenged”.

How long should we reasonably expect our devices to last?

Body-worn sensor devices collect biometric data.
Photo: 123RF

University of New South Wales Sydney Professor Toby Walsh, who was part of the 12-member working group that produced the discussion paper, said “many sports currently have more data than they can demonstrate is useful”.

“We’ve got more and more cheap sensors so that we can collect this tsunami of data, not just data about people’s position and motion around the playing pitch but also biometric information about their heartbeat, their blood pressure and all of this information now we can collect very easily and very cheaply,” Walsh said.

“It used to be that we might collect data when you were playing a game, now we’re collecting it during training and we’re even collecting it when you go home even when you’re asleep and of course that raises some interesting, challenging legal and ethical questions about your privacy and about what happens to that data when you’re no longer competing.”

16.07.2011 Rugby Union Australian Wallabies at their training session prior to the Samoa Test - Stephen Moore gets his GPS fitted.

Former Wallaby Stephen Moore gets his GPS fitted in 2011.

Gunasekara agreed the reach of the data collection that “seeped” into every aspect of the bodies and private lives of athletes in New Zealand and overseas was a “blurring of boundaries”.

“Even if it is done voluntarily, even if they’re made aware of the risks – which they’re probably not – but even if they are it allows for potentially what I call abuse. It’s an abuse of power, it’s an abuse of somebody’s personal space to have that data collected.

“If it’s an employment situation then there is always the risk that you’d feel the pressure of the employers and you don’t want to be the odd one out.

“I don’t know whether you could argue that consent is a proper basis for the collection of this sort of data.”

Grassroots athletes data at risk too

Data on the distance a professional athlete ran, tackles made or missed and stroke rate is accessible to fans in real-time during a televised game or race, or found later archived on the internet – thanks to GPS monitors and video tracking.

GPS Monitors
NZRL Training

GPS tracking for the Kiwis players

Teenage athletes’ on and off-field physical performance was also being tracked in similar ways by their teachers as some secondary schools embraced tracking tools.

Young athletes’ metrics are not splashed on the internet under player profiles or in fantasy team statistics but who actually does have access to the information is murky, according to Gunasekara.

“There needs to be better transparency… and the companies that are providing these technologies if they’re just providing the service for the people who are using it, that is one thing, but quite often you might find that the companies are selling the information themselves.”

Lopeti Faifua scores a try.
Auckland Secondary Schools First XV Final. Rugby Union. King's College v Saint Kentigern College.

Kings College athletes have access to GPS and other monitoring.

King’s College in Auckland first sourced GPS and analysis software to monitor their students in 2015 but have since modified their approach.

The school’s head of athletic development Craig Birkbeck recognised they were not running professional sports teams and did not need all the data they could produce.

Birkbeck said access to the GPS and analysis software was wide-spread and utlised across a variety of sports at the school. Data was collected periodically throughout the year and not during every match.

“Our students are fortunate to have access to GPS software. However, it is not the be-all-end-all, and to some extent, not necessary within a secondary school environment,” Birkbeck said.

A student’s physical data results were collated and tracked between years – as academic results were – and information shared with parents.

Teammates could also compare metrics such as max speed.

“The whole purpose behind collecting data is to track and observe changes. Otherwise you’re collecting data for the sake of it.”

Maturation, stress, study, relationships, nutrition and routine needed to be considered when comparing data over time periods, Birkbeck said.

“Data analysis is multifactorial, and requires a true professional who is on the ground interacting with the student to truly understand the data.

“You shouldn’t share data with people that do not understand it. Additionally you shouldn’t look at data if you don’t understand the person producing it.”

The school had collected enough data across the previous five years to have a good enough understanding of what a capable student should be producing, Birkbeck said.

“When we say capable, we say that with injury reduction at the forefront of our mind. If students can’t produce X in a 40m sprint, if they cannot produce X in a power clean based on their body mass, if they cannot run X in a Yo-Yo, then they are not appropriately prepared to play the sport.”

Data was used to complement the school’s sport staff’s knowledge – not replace it.

“We do not want to have more data, instead, we want to have more meaningful opportunities to coach and help progress students understanding of fundamental skills, and their game IQ.”

King’s College had moved away from utilising body composition software and monitoring with the students.

“Societal influences which pressure adolescents to look a certain way, are not suitable from a mental health perspective,” Birkbeck said.

“We now avoid such practices, and instead place more of an emphasis on every-day lifestyle habits with exercise and nutrition.

“As a practitioner, you shouldn’t be using data as a pressure mechanism, rather, a motivator and accountability tool to develop a student’s work ethic.”

More recently the school had started using the Passport for Life a physical literacy system developed in Canada which produced insight into students skill acquisition, cardiorespiratory fitness and bodyweight strength which went alongside the max speed, high intensity distance speed and distance rate recorded by GPS.

“This is a more holistic intervention, and fit for purpose within the secondary school environment.”

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