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Polar Active Physical Activity Monitors in Bay Shore School District Raise Privacy Issues

In efforts to combat obesity, beginning this spring, a group of students from the Bay Shore School District will be wearing devices on their wrists that will monitor their physical activity level around the clock.

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In efforts to combat obesity, beginning this spring, a group of students from the Bay Shore School District will be wearing devices on their wrists that will monitor their physical activity level around the clock.

Using hand-held computers, teachers will collect data from Polar Active fitness monitors that count heartbeats, monitor time spent sleeping and track calories burned, and transmit the information to a Web site for monitoring and long-term storage. The password-protected Web site will be accessible to both the students and educators.

Students will be able to track their activity and compare their individual data with the class average. Educators will use the data to evaluate and make recommendations to the students. The school district has not specified how long the students will wear the device each day or disclosed if participation is voluntary.

The South Orange-Maplewood School District of New Jersey has employed the use of earlier versions of the device for two years. Its upper grade level students’ phys ed marks are based, in part, on the data the monitors disclose. School districts in St. Louis also utilize the device.

Proponents of the digital fitness monitors point to the fact that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Childhood obesity rates have more than tripled in the past 30 years and that the monitors will help students to understand the importance of physical activity.

Ted Nagengast, the Bay Shore athletics chair, said, “It’s a great reinforcement in fighting the obesity epidemic. It tells kids, in real time, ‘Am I active? Am I not active?’ We want to give kids the opportunity to become active.”

In spite of its apparent benefits, however, both parents and civil liberties advocates have raised privacy concerns about the electronic monitoring system. They stress that the program should be completely voluntary and not part of a school’s physical education curriculum. One woman expressed concern that her son, a fourth-grader, was monitored without her knowledge. “I didn’t even know it was going on, and I’m active in the school,” said Beth Huebner, of St. Louis. “We have gotten no information about the Web site security or where the data will go”.

“When you get into monitoring people’s biological vital signs, that’s a pretty intrusive measurement,” said Jay Stanley, of the American Civil Liberties Union. “There are key privacy interests at play.” He pointed out that at the very least, schools must obtain parents’ consent; and parents must have a say in how long the data will be stored and who will have access to it.

Other issues surrounding the controversial electronic monitors involve how the data will be transmitted from school to school, access by health insurance companies to the data, and questions surrounding the implementation of drug therapy regimens based on analysis of the information collected.


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