Personal Data Collection Hits The Sports World

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Eric Lieberman Managing Editor
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Wearable technology like fitness monitors and “smart clothing” is entering the mainstream sports world.

The University of Michigan football program signed a new apparel contract with Nike. A specific stipulation in the deal leaves an opening for the sports company to collect personal data from athletes through the provided attire, according to The New York Times. Nike patented a smart shirt design for fitness tracking more than a year ago, which apparently has the capacity to track physical properties like “heart rate and blood pressure.”

Wearable technologies are considered networked devices that have the ability to gather data by tracking users’ movements. Automatically evaluating amateur and professional athletes’ activities empowers companies and teams, and can help properly adapt and optimize performance.

“These devices typically rely on sensor technologies as well as existing wireless networking systems and protocols (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, near field communication, and GPS) to facilitate those objectives,” Adam Thierer, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center, wrote in his book “Permissionless Innovation.”

Analysts estimate that 130 million consumers around the world currently use some sort of fitness trackers, according to a McKinsey Global Institute report called, “Unlocking the potential of the Internet Of Things.” Wearable devices are expected to exceed 1.3 billion units in 2025.

Nike’s contract with the University of Michigan football program specifies that such smart shirts will collect data like “speed, distance, vertical leap height, maximum time aloft, shot attempts, ball possession, heart rate, running route,” and other metrics.

While data is usually great for business, there are inherent privacy concerns that come with such monitoring.

“Somebody who is motivated and has the right tools — and we’re not talking complex or expensive tools here — could get access to this data while it’s in transit, or in storage where it hasn’t been encrypted,” Christine Sublett, an information security consultant, told The New York Times.

Hackers with a direct interest in a sporting event, perhaps because of gambling, could cause skepticism over wearable technology.

“This is a place where there’s lots of money to be made, which means people will be motivated,” Sublett continued.

There are many means of addressing these concerns. Thierer argues that companies should “develop better ‘privacy-by-design’ and ‘security-by-design’ strategies to ‘bake-in’ best practices for data handling and use,” meaning that the same state-of-the-art technology that collects information can protect it as well.

“Other targeted laws or liability norms already exist that can address particular egregious misuses of wearable devices, like ‘Peeping Tom’ laws and other privacy torts that address surreptitious surveillance,” Thierer said.

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