Surveillance state: Australian sport and its next battlefront


Professional sports in Australia have been taken hostage by the promise of dollars that data can bring, leading to an “explosion in the capture” of athletes’ personal and private information collected from 24-7 monitoring with little to no regulations or safeguards.

Key points:

  • A new report says the data collected by teams and leagues cuts across rights of privacy, bodily autonomy, worker protections and human rights
  • It includes not just GPS data on game days and training, but sleep and wellbeing tracking
  • Bioethicists say there should be an independent body to regulate the collection of athletes’ data

The “capture all” approach without the application of a legal, ethical and medical framework leaves athletes and governing bodies exposed and vulnerable according to the authors of a new discussion paper urging action from professional sports bodies.

Getting Ahead of the Game – Athlete Data in Professional Sport, has been published by the University of Western Australia’s (UWA) Minderoo Tech and Policy Lab and the Australian Academy of Science.

An expert working group (EWG) found sports currently harvest vast amounts of data that cuts across rights of privacy, bodily autonomy, worker protections and human rights.

Co-chair of the group Professor Julia Powles said the amount of information collection is prolific.

“There’s information from the chest harnesses that athletes wear, there’s information from devices that we might use for our weekend run … but there’s also information collection when they’re off the field – wellbeing tracking, sleep track, a range of physiological measures,” she told The Ticket podcast.

“So, it’s 24/7 information collection, and the spectacular thing is that this is in an industry where that information collection is largely unregulated.

“That’s happening on laptops, phones, on management systems where no-one quite knows where the information is going.

“There’s a huge number of parties touching that information to the extent where no practitioner we spoke to could really comprehend the scale of information collection.”

Nobody interviewed by the working group could describe what happened to the collection of data once it was “put in the cloud”.

There are legitimate concerns around third-party access as data is passed on to broadcasters, wagering agencies, commercial entities and fans.

Photo of Dr Julia Powles and Professor Frank Pasquale in conversation Dr Julia Powles (left) says the data collection on athletes is prolific.(ABC News: Simon Elvery)

Thirty-two per cent of data captured is stored in systems operated by foreign entities.

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

“There seemed to be a disconnect between the claims and promises and potential … I’m an expert in AI, I believe there’ll be useful things that we can do, but it’s hard to reconcile that with the breadth and depth of the data that’s being collected, and the promises being made.”

Players expressed concerns about sharing personal information like mental health status and cited instances of masking or distorting their information before uploading the data requested by their sports.

Rugby League Players Association chief executive Clint Newton, who represents players across the NRL and NRLW competitions, believes the commercialisation of athlete data is looming.

He said more targeted discussions between player groups and governing bodies over ownership and compensation of personal athlete data were crucial.

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

Ownership of data is expected to form a key component 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 must be a framework for the commercialisation of an athlete’s data.
 (AAP: James Gourley)

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

“At the end of the day they [the players] are human beings and that must be prioritised,” Newton said.

“We cannot be in a situation where we are sending our codes into the prioritisation of player data over some of the human outputs that we know exist but you can’t actually capture, like what’s between the ears.”

One of the questions posed to sports bodies by the working group is, “if all the data described … was no longer collected, what impact would it have on athletes and on the game?”

The tech director at the Minderoo Tech and Policy Lab at UWA, Associate Professor Jacqueline Alderson, has worked closely with sports such as Aussie rules, cricket, swimming and hockey, and said it was not a matter of “winding back” data collection.

“I think the question is, should we be having a conversation about what is useful, what is meaningful, how are we using it, and why are we collecting?” Alderson said.

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

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

The added opportunity to commercialise it has led to an exponential increase in its importance inside the professional sports environment.

Data analytics is a growing area inside most professional sports teams, often at the expense of traditional experts in sports science.

What needs to change?

Bioethicists recommend an independent regulatory body consisting 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.

The director of the School of Regulation and Global Governance at ANU, Professor Kate Henne, said the integrity around data collection, retention and use is not unique to either Australia or sport.

It is a challenge faced in many industries globally.

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

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

“That’s something we don’t have in the same way in Australia … but it’s a starting point for thinking through how we can work together.”

The cost of not building a fit-for-purpose integrity and ethics-based framework for data use now could lead to expensive lawsuits down the track.

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

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

Posted 14 Apr 202214 Apr 2022Thu 14 Apr 2022 at 9:03pm, updated 14 Apr 202214 Apr 2022Thu 14 Apr 2022 at 10:56pm


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