2 March 2018

WADA Ethics Panel rejects use of GPS in testing athletes

The Ethics Panel of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has rejected the use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to locate athletes for testing, citing that its use is ‘replete with ethical concerns’ in a Position Paper published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM). However, the Paper appears to have ignored any privacy benefits that use of GPS technology could provide, instead focussing on potential privacy dangers. The Panel’s recommendations will be considered at a May 2018 WADA Executive Committee meeting, after which WADA’s views will be published.

‘While benefits remain largely hypothetical and minimal, the potential invasion of privacy and the data security threats are real’, reads the Paper (PDF below). ‘Considering the impact on privacy, data security issues, the societal ramifications of offering such services and various pragmatic considerations, the WADA Ethics Panel concludes that at this time the use of geolocalization should neither be mandated as a tool for disclosing whereabouts, nor implemented on a voluntary basis’.

However, real privacy and data security threats are also presented by the current system. Private athlete data submitted through WADA’s Anti-Doping Administration and Management System (ADAMS) has been systematically exposed by illegal hacking group, Fancy Bears.

Privacy risk

The Paper states that ‘various athletes already perceive the current whereabouts system as privacy infringing and that adding geolocalisation would only increase this feeling’. It does not give a source for this statement.

It also mentions that ‘the collection of ongoing location information from an identified individual should be considered highly sensitive data. This creates important considerations for the level of data storage and access. Data breaches would be highly problematic. The recent Fancy Bears data hacking shows that such concerns are certainly relevant. Athletes might fear that their data could be hacked, leading to a potentially negative impact on their career.’

Many of these concerns also exist with WADA’s ADAMS. This requires athletes selected to be part of a Registered Testing Pool (RTP) to submit ‘whereabouts’ information indicating where they will be available for testing for one hour each day, three months in advance. This data is centrally held by the organisation that has selected the athlete to be part of the RTP, and can be accessed by any Doping Control Officers (DCOs) authorised to test them.

‘Only anti-doping organizations authorized to test the athlete can access his/her data’, states WADA. ‘The organization “responsible” (custodian) for the athlete is responsible for providing access rights. For example, if UK Sport creates a profile for a UK athlete in ADAMS, UK Sport will be qualified as the “custodian” of the relevant athlete’s records and is designated as such in ADAMS. UK Sport may grant other ADOs, such as an ADO where the athlete train or competes, access to certain information of the relevant athlete (e.g., whereabouts training or test planning information). In such case, ADAMS lets athletes know which entities have access to their information.’

This centrally-held data, which is potentially accessible by a number of testing authorities, creates a significant privacy risk. This was recognised by the Article 29 Working Party, which is made up by European data protection commissioners, back in 2013.

At its Foundation Board meeting in November last year, WADA admitted that it had spent US$200,000 on updating the ADAMS system following continued hacks by Fancy Bears. WADA’s unscheduled update caused issues with athletes being unable to log in to file their whereabouts – a potential sanctioning time bomb.

“Athletes are angry”, Lars Mortsiefer, Legal Director of Germany’s National Anti-Doping Agency (NADA), told The Sports Integrity Initiative. “ADAMS is not safe at the moment”.

GPS as a privacy enhancer

Whilst the paper has examined potential privacy concerns from use of GPS technology to locate athletes for testing, it does not appear to have considered whether such technology could enhance privacy for athletes. Use of GPS Technology can reduce the amount of sensitive athlete data that needs to be centrally held, reducing risks that data breaches could compromise the personal data of athletes.

The PARADISE Project, developed by a former German athlete, utilises a wearable GPS positioning device to initially give an athlete’s rough location to a DCO, who receives the exact location only once they are within four kilometres of the athlete. It would therefore remove the need for detailed, centrally held, whereabouts filings.

WADA’s Paper states that geolocation devices ‘are often misperceived as being replacements for ADAMS, when in reality whereabouts information for ADAMS would still be needed since instant geolocalisation would not enable testing authorities to plan their missions sufficiently ahead of the desired collection time […] In order to allow antidoping officials to plan antidoping controls outside competitions, athletes would still be required to submit their planned locations in ADAMS, as location-based devices only identify individuals at a given point in time and not in the future.’

It is true that GPS cannot fully replace whereabouts information, as some data would still need to be filed for precisely the reasons outlined above. But by utilising both GPS and the existing whereabouts system, testing authorities could still plan testing missions while enhancing the privacy of athletes by collecting less data from them. Currently, athletes selected to by part of an RTP must file whereabouts daily. If GPS were used, they might only have to file whereabouts if they ventured over 200km from a number of known addresses, such as their home address, parents’ address or training camps.

Practical concerns

The Paper also outlines some practical concerns, such as ‘inaccuracies in dense forests or between tall buildings or could be affected by other system failures. Athletes could also forget, lose or break their tracking devices (accidentally or otherwise), which would present serious difficulties for strict liability on which antidoping policy exists. Cheating athletes could give their phones or tracking devices to individuals in their environment. It questions also whether a ‘disappearance’ off the grid would potentially lead to a whereabouts failure. Therefore, the question is precisely what kind of benefit a location-based device could provide compared with calling an athlete on a cellphone in case the athlete cannot be found within the disclosed location during the 60min time slot.’

Under the current whereabouts system, if there are three instances where a DCO cannot locate an athlete at their stated location – or if they fail to correctly file whereabouts data – three times in one year, they face a two-year ban. A similar ‘three strikes and you’re out’ system could be implemented in terms of use of GPS technology.

If you are not present where your GPS signal states that you should be, a first ‘whereabouts failure’ would be recorded. In cases involving a ‘disappearance off the grid’ or where the GPS signal fails, mobile phones could be used to locate the athlete, as the DCO would already have a rough idea of athlete location due to their limited whereabouts filings.

Use of GPS could clarify cases where it is claimed that an athlete was not where they said they would be available for testing. There have been cases where there was a question as to whether the athlete was present at their stated location for testing (such as in the Nikša Dobud case), and GPS could help minimise such issues.

The clue is in the name

In January, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held that the public interest in maintaining the ‘whereabouts’ requirements within ADAMS outweighed any restriction of athlete rights under the European Convention of Human Rights. Like the WADA Ethics Panel Position Paper, it does not appear to have considered whether less egregious alternatives are available.

The clue is perhaps in the name: Privacy-enhancing And Reliable Anti-Doping Integrated Service Environment (PARADISE). ‘For more than 5 years, my goal has been to strengthen the athletes moral and legal right to privacy’, wrote Jonas Plass, the developer of the PARADISE Project, in an email. ‘That’s what PARADISE was all about. Not the opposite! Unfortunately, we were never contacted by the Ethics panel to discuss details of the project. Technology is neither good, nor bad. It always depends on how it’s utilised.’

It is understood that WADA’s Paper was prompted by comments made by Mike Miller of the World Olympians Association (WOA) at a Westminster Forum conference last year, and did not consider technology developed by the PARADISE Project. The authors of the paper confirmed that they did not look at specific projects, and that their Paper was designed to elaborate the concerns of the WADA Ethics Board about use of GPS technology in the framework of whereabouts.

Miller was forced to defend his comments suggesting that sport should consider microchipping athletes after alarmist articles in The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph obliterated any sensible debate about how sport could make the lives of athletes easier by embracing new technology. This was Miller’s point, as The Sport Integrity Initiative reported. It appears that point has now been lost.

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