A new program at Oral Roberts University is requiring freshmen to wear Fitbits and share data with their professors, raising privacy concerns.
Image by Rachel Pick adapted from Joseph Novak/Flickr
Oral Roberts University launched a program this year requiring incoming freshmen to purchase the Fitbit HR to track and forward wellness data to the school for a grade––but just how much of their activity will professors be able to see?
Back in 2011, there was a minor kerfuffle when people realized that their records of calories burned during sex were showing up on users' public profiles and therefore in Google search results. At the time, the company offered "sexual activity" as a fitness category, and allowed users to log its exercise value on a scale ranging from "passive, light effort" to "active and vigorous."
Fitbit since changed its default privacy settings and dropped the category from the app. But is it still possible to tell when someone is having sex based on their fitness tracker data?
Given that Oral Roberts, a religious university, forbids premarital sex in its honor code, this seemed like a particularly pertinent question for its students.
The model Oral Roberts chose, the Fitbit HR, tracks heart rate, workouts, calories, steps, and sleep, but the school will only collect information on steps and heart rate. Based on this data, it's unlikely that it would be possible to tell the difference between sexual activity and some other type of exercise (sexual activity also tends to burn disappointingly few calories, anecdotal evidence has shown).
A representative for the school also denied that it had the ability or inclination to use its database to identify which students are boning.
"It has been a huge success on campus."
Mike Mathews, the chief information officer at the school who helped develop the program, assured Motherboard the program will only track heart rate information and the number of steps students take automatically through the device. The Fitbit HR model used does not track GPS location, and the school will not be able to see itemized activities or calories burned, he said.
When students first log into the school's information system, they consent to have data that is continuously tracked by Fitbit shared. Students will download their information into the Fitbit database, which can then be accessed by the university so professors can determine if students hit their goal of 10,000 steps in a day and checked a heart rate three times a day.
The Fitbit program is an extension of fitness requirements the school has had for decades as part of its "whole person education" philosophy, which offers pass/fail grades based on fitness activities. Students previously had to record their step and heart rate data by hand.
"This is just for their grades so they pass the class, like it always has been," Mathews said. "We aren't doing anything with the data at this time. We are happy to know wearable technology is here to stay and we are leveraging it in the best way we can in a simplistic manner."
The Fitbit data will be automatically logged on a school computer and shared only with the single professor tasked with giving out grades for the program. Mathews said Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) laws, which ensure student privacy on campus, say the school cannot use the data in any way except for grades, and students retain the right to scrub their data from the Fitbit account upon graduation.
Mathews added that while many news outlets have reported that all students are required to wear the Fitbit, any student can opt out of the system and return to the original method of writing down steps and heart rate by hand, although he has yet to find a student who prefers that method.
"It has been a huge success on campus," he said. "Not one parent complained, not one student has. It saves them numerous hours of inputting data."
While it seems unlikely that Fitbit data can be used to spy on students having premarital sex, the privacy concerns are real, with the number of companies tracking employee fitness with gadgets for insurance reasons on the rise and many security advocates warning these companies could soon sell your data to advertisers. The data is also of increasing interest to courts, despite the fact that security researchers have found fitness trackers to be vulnerable to spoofing and hacking.
Oral Roberts is also not the only school with plans to monitor students: Notre Dame received a grant in 2015 to track student fitness activity and link it to their social activity.
Fitbit declined to comment on this story.