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Golden State Warriors lawsuit shows the dangers of NBA’s embrace of technology

NBA All-Star Game 2017 - Media Availability Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

LaTisha Satchell, a Warriors fan, is suing her favorite team over the behavior of the team app. Beyond providing updates of team news activities and scores, the lawsuit alleges the app used the microphone on Satchell’s phone to record her private conversations. She was being recorded at all times, even when she wasn’t directly using the app.

The recording behavior of the app was initially intended as a way for the Warriors to sell merchandise and ticket upgrades. It was supposed to track users using audio “beacons” that played through transmitters when the user was in Warriors-owned property, sending back data about where the user was and how long they had been there. So if you were in a higher seat, it could suggest tickets to get closer to the game or, if you were around the gift shop, it would send ads of things you could buy there.

But it went beyond that, the lawsuit alleges. The app expanded that reach to recording users, using the phone’s microphone, and collecting data of their conversations and whereabouts, as long as the app had location and microphone permissions. Those permissions can be changed in the settings of the app, but most people hardly ever even look at what permissions the apps ask for, let alone think to change them.

The Warriors, for their part, deny the allegations:

"While we normally do not comment on pending litigation, the allegations in this lawsuit are purely fanciful and wholly without merit. Our app has never been used to listen to any conversations. Period," the team said in a statement to SB Nation.

How did an app meant to supplement the fan experience allegedly turn into a tool for recording private conversations? And, perhaps more importantly, why would an NBA team even want to know any of that information in the first place?

The NBA wants to conquer the digital landscape. Commissioner Adam Silver wants the league to reflect the time in which it exists and the preferences of its fans, rather than being left behind. This means that the league has to find a way to incorporate and use new technologies to its advantage. The league is considering and developing everything from off-court goodies like the team apps, finding new ways to stream games, and virtual reality for fans to on-court advancements such as wearable technology for players. The objective of all of this is to enhance fan experience, which is another way of saying keeping butts in the seats and keeping the league profitable. Teams might also be able to use VR and wearables to gain a competitive advantage.

2017 NBA Awards Live On TNT - Arrivals Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for TNT

The possibilities of some of the technology is ridiculous. The wearables, produced by the companies Catapult Sports, StatSports, and Zephyr, are already in use in practices and in regular G-League games. They can tell you how much and which directions a player ran, their heart rate, how fatigued they are, their rate of acceleration and deceleration, how many times they jumped and their musculoskeletal intensity. That means that you could see how strained the body of LeBron James is, from his heart to his joints, while he averages a triple double against the Warriors in another Finals matchup.

The WHOOP straps measure strain, recovery, and sleep.

Expanding to other avenues of streaming, like Facebook Live or Amazon Prime, will also change the experience of watching a basketball game. The NFL already streams through Prime and one of their features is the options of additional broadcasts. You can change the commentary of the game from standard American english to UK English, Spanish, or Brazilian Portuguese. In a sports with worldwide appeal like the NBA, such an option would be a tremendous step forward in being inclusive. There’s also the chance of having celebrities, comedians or the users themselves as color commentators. You could be the master of your experience, mixing and matching what you want to see and hear, and how you want to receive the games, rather than being burdened with the standard broadcast.

The apps are a little more straightforward but the breadth of information that you get from them is still staggering. Even if some of it has been taken for granted. The Cavaliers app provides the score, recap and stats of the last game. There’s a link to daily news, where you get an overview of what is happening with the team, from practice drills, press conferences, and their tweets. You have the ability to watch postgame conferences of individual players and read the programming notes for the next game.

If you switch over to the featured tab, you can buy tickets, look at the roster, the schedule, latest news and media, and the standings of the conference.

There’s also a Twitter tab where you can see tweets from all of the players on the roster as well the team and other sports accounts. The app gives you deep access and knowledge of the team right at your fingertips. And soon, it could be incorporated with the wearables of the players, so that you can see how their bodies performed alongside their base and advanced stats. This is not including how virtual reality could let you be at a game without ever leaving your home.

This digital revolution is unavoidable, not only because that’s the way that the world is going but because the technology is awesome and convenient.

I want to be able to hear what the referees are saying to players during a game. To feel like I’m in the Staples Center or Madison Square Garden without even leaving the bed. And to get a reading of Kyrie Irving’s heart rate when he makes another ridiculous statement so I can argue whether he’s knowingly lying or not. I want to be able to watch games on TNT without hearing the guys from Inside the NBA. Having the option to listen to Desus and Mero making jokes about the game instead, would be heaven. Just imagine that.

Even right now we can get push notifications about everything from the score of a game to what memes James is using on Instagram. It’s such a common and everyday thing that you almost forget how mind-blowing it really is. I have the ESPN, NBA, TNT, Basketball Referenc,e and a few supplementary apps just so I don’t miss anything. These new technologies, wearables, streaming, VR, would be great additions to what we already have in making the fan experience more immersive and fun.

But there’s a tradeoff.

The immediate price fans pay for these digital wonders is their attention. The NBA, like all other companies, wants to keep its audience engaged for as long as possible. The league has succeeded so far in doing so in the social media age. It has the personalities, talent pool, and drama to drive a yearlong news cycle; there’s always something happening, a tweet, a meme, a crossover, a dunk, or a great game. It helps that the league embraced the technologies and its people rather than cocooning itself — as other leagues did — in the arrogance that the world would conform to it, rather than the other way around. There’s no reason to think that the NBA won’t continue to be smart about embracing the digital world going forward.

Past attention, there’s a more sinister to be paid to participate in the digital world, even with things as ordinary and everyday as apps: The price of access and information.

For balance purposes, let’s look at the Cavaliers team app. After downloading the app, one must agree to allow it to: Read calendar events plus confidential information, add or modify events and send emails to guests without owners’ knowledge, take pictures and videos, read your contacts, find accounts on the device, approximate location using the network, find your location through a combination of the network and GPS, read your phone status and identity, modify or delete the contents of your SD card, read the contents of your SD card, prevent phone from sleeping, connect and disconnect from Wi-Fi, receive data from the internet, access Bluetooth settings, control vibration, view network connections, control Near Field Communication, receive full network access, retrieve running apps, pair with Bluetooth devices, run at startup, and toggle sync on and off, and view Wi-Fi connections.

It doesn’t allow tracking and recording through the microphone like the Warriors app did, but does it really need to? To use a simple app, you have to give up control of your phone, the information in it, and the information of where you’re at and what you’re doing as long as the app is on your phone. All in service of enhancing your fan experience.

The privacy policy of the Cavaliers app says the collected information may be used to contact the user about the app, to monitor and improve the app, inform the user about a prize they won, and, most importantly, to customize the advertising and content that the user sees.

This is really what’s at work here, and how these apps make money. All of the collected information can be shared with advertisers, sponsors, and (the open-ended and shady sounding) “other organizations.”

These apps collect people’s information to sell them things. Sure, they show scores and stats, but the deep function is to turn a person into a constant consumer. The gathering of information that includes private conversations is to have a desirable bank of information for advertisers who can use it to be more efficient in who they target, the options they target them with, and when to target them with those options. As soon as you download the app and grant it the permissions that it asks for, you agree to participate in having your private life sold to the highest bidder. You give up your world so it can be monetized.

Expand this dynamic beyond the small apps, to virtual reality and wearables, and everything from brain and bodily activity becomes sellable. It’s the weirdness of being followed by an ad for shoes after you search for shoes once in Google, but with everything you do. All the time.

Popular Smart Phone Apps Of 2016 Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images

This penchant for collecting information about people and selling it to advertisers isn’t a specific NBA problem. It’s one of the main functions of the digital world. The enhanced experience of life, the great things about the internet, is the appearance that hides that ugly fact. The attention, information, and privacy of the users is the product. (Facebook uses the information gathered about its users to create “shadow profiles” in order to try to connect them to people that they may know. Meaning that it can gather your information through another individual, if that individual uploads contact information and happens to have your number or email in it.)

Since the NBA wants and admittedly needs to become part of that world, it has to play by those rules. And if they make a little extra money while they’re at it, hey — that works for them, too. All the other team apps have the same type of permission details and privacy policies. With digital life becoming more dominant than disconnected life, there’s a wealth of information available from users that can be sold. Though, as the beacon tracking proves, you don’t even need to be online to be watched.

There’s not much that can be done; the tide of connectivity is moving forward and the new technologies are too attractive to be ignored. Wearables, VR, streaming services and apps are really great tools, and they will serve to make the NBA a better and more fun league. Yet, there needs to be an awareness at the price of these great things. The cost of an enhanced fan experience, the cost of being a modern person, is the attention and privacy of the user. It’s to have your private moments and your passions used against you, in order to transform you into a constant consumer.