As Personal as Data Gets: The Privacy Implications of Wearable Technologies in Schools

As Personal as Data Gets: The Privacy Implications of Wearable Technologies in Schools

As workplaces and schools consider how to reopen safely, some organizations are looking to wearable technology to monitor health and activities. For example, the NBA plans on its players wearing smart rings as they anticipate starting a season at Walt Disney World. The ring can send audio alerts if players come within six feet of one another or are detected to have various COVID-19 symptoms such as elevated heart rate and high body temperature. While this device is relatively new, the reliance on wearable technology in organizations is not. Schools have historically adopted wearable technology for various purposes, and an increasing amount of them are considering their use in their reopening plans. Therefore, it is more important than ever to understand the effects and privacy implications of wearable technology in schools through exploring concerns raised by previous use cases.

Wearable technology is precisely what it sounds like: technology that individuals wear. The ability to physically connect technology to one’s skin allows users to track specific health information, which ultimately fosters a healthier lifestyle. These popular devices provide automatic feedback to users––or others––while also prompting users to take action. Over 25 million people use Fitbit technology to view metrics such as the number of steps taken in a day; additionally, many people have invested in heart rate monitors to better understand their cardiac health.

Wearable technology in schools is most often seen in physical education (PE) classes. These schools, including one in Omaha, Nebraska, believe that tracking students’ biometrics in PE helps to monitor progress and ensure they reach their full potential. The company Polar GoFit already services more than 10,000 schools with heart rate monitors, some of which have Bluetooth connection or GPS integration capabilities. Interactive Health Technologies similarly produces a product specially designed for PE that monitors heart rate and calories burned. One school in Edinboro, Pennsylvania, that adopted this technology in 2017 claims that its implementation has spurred students to “work harder” and allows them to be “their own personal trainers.”

Schools already using these types of devices would likely be able to expand their uses to monitor for COVID-19. Schools should understand, however, that even if they have previously received parental consent for a particular device, they must obtain consent again to repurpose the data collection.

While these efforts sound positive on the surface, wearable technologies have not come without controversy. For example, one district in Andover, Massachusetts, was confronted with a coalition of parents who petitioned against the use of heart rate monitoring in PE as part of students’ grades. They claimed it was unfair for students to have to reach a target heart rate or otherwise receive a poor grade. This situation suggests challenging implications for educational use of these technologies when students return to school this fall. Presumably, negative consequences will result if a student does anything that triggers a wearable device, such as move too close to another person or have a high body temperature. It is important to note the likely prevalence of false positives, such as measuring a higher temperature after exercise or flagging that students are near each other when there is actually a wall between them. Moreover, the use of this technology could create an environment where students feel that school officials are watching their every move.

Despite these concerns, some schools are already using wearable devices for settings other than PE classes; at SUNY Oswego, a psychology professor tracked his students’ heart rates to understand the relationship between their feelings throughout the day and their learning. Additionally, a university in New Jersey for students with disabilities concluded that wearable technology boosted student motivation and engagement. But did these positive outcomes occur because students were suddenly more excited about school or because students feared punishment if they failed to comply?

Metrics garnered from wearable technology continue to change the way schools operate. Instead of requiring students to attend traditional PE classes, for example, some schools have allowed students to enroll in online PE that they complete on their own time. In these scenarios, students must wear school-issued devices and fulfill specific requirements each week, which a teacher monitors. For instance, a high school student in northern Virginia chose an online PE program so that she could take more classes during the day. This student was then required to complete at least three 30-minute workouts per week and turn in screenshots of her activity. The PE teacher then monitored her progress, set goals, and gave the student feedback. In this model, the wearable device did not automatically send data to the teacher; instead, the student had control over which screenshots she shared. In other cases, wearable devices could be connected to third-party software that automatically sends information externally, sometimes to unknown actors.

During the upcoming school year, wearable technology may become a popular way to track both students who are and are not physically present in school buildings. While these personal trackers may allow some students to feel empowered about their health, others may be confronted with potential privacy issues:

  • To what extent do schools and edtech companies monitor students’ biometric data? Do districts have 24/7 access to data about students’ heart rates?
  • How can this data be misleading? Do schools have a process to address misinterpretations?
  • What are the ethical implications of using health records as part of students’ grades?
  • Who has access to this data? Are they trained on how to handle it?
  • How long does the school keep this data? Do schools delete the data after students graduate?
  • Which security precautions will schools take to protect this data from being hacked?
  • What are a school’s responsibilities concerning students whose biometric data indicates possible COVID-19 symptoms?
  • Will students have the right to opt-out of using wearable technologies?

Education stakeholders have posed these types of questions before, for example, during the fight and failure to stop a school district in Lockport, New York, from implementing facial recognition technology. School districts must understand that student data collection does not get more personal than biometrics; if left unregulated, the data can have severe consequences for student privacy. Administrators should develop guidelines on what biometric data their school will collect as well as how they will collect and share it. This information should be communicated to both parents and students before the start of school this fall, allowing time for education and understanding.

Alexis Shore is a Ph.D. student in Emerging Media Studies at Boston University. She focuses her research on information disclosure behaviors and chilling effects of surveillance. Prior to pursuing her Ph.D., she received her Master’s in Emerging Media Studies from Boston University and Bachelor’s degree in Communication at Cornell University.

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