Well Known Biases

Politics, Economics, and the Law

Fitness Monitors Raise Privacy Concerns

STLtoday has a story (now a couple of weeks stale, but new to me) concerning an elementary school’s plan to use wristwatch-like fitness monitors to catalog the activity-levels and sleep patterns of students. At present, the devices are only being used during physical education classes, but the green light has been given to have students wear them for a week at a time, later in the school year. The aim of the project is to help assure the students are getting a proper amount of daily exercise, and to make them responsible for this.

As ever, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

It would be hard to argue that America’s youth, on average, need more exercise. America’s adults need this as well. This is a nation where a clear majority of the population is overweight, and one-third of adults are considered obese. I don’t know anyone who isn’t aware this is an enormous problem in our country, but I’m unconvinced that monitoring programs are the kind of solution we really want. Perhaps scrutiny of a student’s health activities wouldn’t be “that bad” if strictly limited in scope, and if these records were destroyed after the student left the school. But let’s explore the fuller implications of this, and go down the rabbit hole.

Ramspott said the district plans to share all physical activity and sleep reports with parents and begin exploring correlations between physical activity, sleep patterns, health risk factors and academic performance.”

“Our goal is to reduce risk factors for obesity and encourage higher student achievement,” Ramspott said. 

[. . .]

“These reports will go into portfolios to let kids examine their own behaviors and set goals,” Beckmann said.

So the school district, presumably with the help of some state or federal statistician or health professional, will be cataloging individual’s activities, collecting all these data sets into a whole, and poring over it to determine what is occurring, what the foreseeable consequences are, and naturally what “must be done.” Regardless of whether or not the school district can legally compel students (or their parents) to act, or refrain from acting in a particular way is largely inconsequential. They will certainly be able to exercise “firm” power (“soft” being suggestion, and “hard” being legal mandate) to direct students, through grading, notations in student records, and so on. “Encouragement” always has a different tone when it comes from someone who exercises control over manifold aspects of your life.

And what of the long-term status of these records? It is certainly possible that such data could be stored in perpetuity, and eventually used again. Will these records be given the same legal status as medical records? Far-fetched as it seems, could an insurance company, or the hiring officer of a future employer require you to divulge information regarding your activity habits during your formative years, in an effort to pigeonhole you into a risk category? Those possibilities, while they sound like some kind of Gattaca-esque, tin-foil-hat nightmare, should hardly be taken completely off the table.

While initially innocuous, and designed for essentially benign purposes, a program of this nature opens the door for more government control over our lives. It makes the State incrementally more responsible for the raising of our children. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but when we give up these bits of privacy and control, we never get them back.

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