Data collection in Australian sport leads to privacy concerns for athletes

Professional sports in Australia have been held hostage by the promise of dollars that data can bring in, leading to an “explosion in capture” of athletes’ personal and private information gathered through round-the-clock surveillance, 7 days a week, with little or no regulations or guarantees.

The authors of a new discussion paper calling for action by professional sporting bodies say that the “grab it all” approach without the application of a legal, ethical and medical framework leaves athletes and governing bodies exposed and vulnerable .

Getting Ahead of the Game – Athlete Data in Professional Sport, was published by the Minderoo Tech and Policy Lab at the University of Western Australia (UWA) and the Australian Academy of Sciences.

An Expert Working Group (EWG) has found that sport is currently harvesting large amounts of data that intersects with privacy rights, bodily autonomy, worker protections and human rights.

The group’s co-chair, Professor Julia Powles, said the amount of information gathered is prolific.

“There’s information about the chest harnesses that athletes are wearing, there’s information about the devices we might use for our weekend race…but there’s also the gathering of information when they’re off the pitch – wellness tracking, sleep tracking, a range of physiological metrics,” she told The Ticket podcast.

“So it’s 24/7 news gathering, and what’s spectacular is that it’s in an industry where that news gathering is largely unregulated.

“It happens on laptops, phones, business systems where no one really knows where the information is going.

No one interviewed by the task force could describe what happened to the collection of the data once it was “put in the cloud”.

There are legitimate concerns about third party access, as the data is passed to broadcasters, betting companies, commercial entities and fans.

Dr Julia Powles (left) says the collection of athlete data is prolific.(ABC News: Simon Elvery)

Thirty-two percent of the data captured is stored in systems operated by foreign entities.

“There’s a lot more promise than achievement,” said Toby Walsh, Laureate Fellow and Scientia Professor of Artificial Intelligence at UNSW.

“There seemed to be a disconnect between claims, promises and potential… I am an AI expert, I think we will be able to do useful things, but it is difficult to reconcile this with the breadth and depth of the data which is collected, and the promises are made.”

Players have expressed concerns about the sharing of personal information such as mental health status and cited instances of their information being hidden or misrepresented before uploading data requested by their sport.

Rugby League Players Association chief executive Clint Newton, which represents players in NRL and NRLW competition, believes the commercialization of athlete data is looming.

He said more focused discussions between player groups and governing bodies about ownership and remuneration of athletes’ personal data were crucial.

“A lot of it is not commercialized yet, but I don’t think we’re far from that…what that [discussion paper] is going to help us do is definitely put in place very clear markers of what’s in and what’s out, and that hasn’t been developed yet,” Newton said.

Data ownership is expected to be a key part of the RLPA’s upcoming negotiations with the NRL as they hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement.

Clint Newton speaking to the media.
Clint Newton says there needs to be a framework for commercializing an athlete’s data.
(PA: James Gourley)

Other professional sports such as Aussie rules, basketball, rugby union, cricket and netball have entered negotiations or will soon.

“In the end, they [the players] are human beings and that has to be a priority,” Newton said.

“We can’t be in a situation where we send our codes into prioritizing player data on some of the human exits that we know exist, but you can’t actually capture, like what’s in between ears.”

One of the questions posed to sporting authorities by the working group is: “if all the data described…were no longer collected, what impact would this have on the athletes and on the game?

The technical director of UWA’s Minderoo Tech and Policy Lab, Associate Professor Jacqueline Alderson, has worked closely with sports such as Aussie Rules, cricket, swimming and hockey, and said there is no it was not about “rewinding” the data collection.

“I think the question is, should we have a conversation about what’s useful, what makes sense, how do we use it, and why do we collect?” said Alderson.

“When we want to justify why we want to collect it, we have to have conversations with the people we collect it from.”

It was the sport’s constant search for the winning edge that initially led to the pursuit of data.

The added opportunity to market it has led to an exponential increase in its prominence in the professional sports environment.

Data analysis is a growing field within most professional sports teams, often at the expense of traditional sports science experts.

What must change?

Bioethicists recommend an independent regulatory body made up of data scientists, player associations, regulatory experts and sports administrators to develop best practices.

But that would require a more collaborative approach to professional sport in Australia, which is still governed by a top-down power structure.

Director of the ANU School of Global Regulation and Governance, Professor Kate Henne, said the integrity of data collection, retention and use is not unique to the United States. Australia or sports.

This is a challenge faced by many industries around the world.

“I think there is an opportunity to make this a space where Australia is leading, but also to learn from some of the shortcomings of other places,” Prof Henne said.

“One thing we’ve learned though is that in the United States at least, we’ve seen really productive collaborative relationships when we have strong player associations involved.

“It’s something we don’t have in the same way in Australia…but it’s a starting point to think about how we can work together.”

The cost of not having a proper data integrity and ethics framework in place for data use could lead to costly lawsuits down the road.

The NFL settled a 2015 concussion lawsuit worth $1 billion after a class action lawsuit accused the NFL of hiding the dangers of repeated concussions.

It is unlikely that any sport in Australia could survive a similar trial.

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