Most people buy fitness trackers like those made by Fitbit and Misfit because they want to keep track of their own activity. But increasingly, insurance companies and workplaces are giving them out -- attached to real money rewards in the form of incentives or lower rates.
But the system can be gamed, as demonstrated by a new site -- unfitbits.com -- by New York artists Surya Mattu and Tega Brain. Most fitness trackers are fairly dumb and can't tell the difference between random movement and someone actually walking or running. So if you're trying to prove to someone else that you've walked 10,000 steps in a day, you can simply strap your fitness tracker to a metronome, or a drill, for instance.
"At Unfit Bits, we are investigating DIY fitness spoofing techniques to allow you to create walking datasets without actually having to share your personal data. These techniques help produce personal data to qualify you for insurance rewards even if you can't afford a high exercise lifestyle," says the website.
In well-produced looping videos, Mattu and Brain show how to use a drill, pendulum, bicycle, and a drill to create a full day of step data without stepping. Other suggestions include strapping your tracker to the wheel of a taxi, a dog, or even a 3D printer.
For now, Unfitbits is a tongue-in-cheek statement about how to resist companies monetizing personal data and how wearable accessories end up tracking the user. There isn't a whole lot of evidence that people are actively spoofing their own fitness data sets. But as the practice of tying rewards to activity levels increases, there's a good chance that lazy people might look for ways to beat the system.
John Hancock recently introduced a program which cuts life insurance premiums for staying active. Oscar, a health insurance provider geared towards young professionals in New York, offers Amazon gift cards for hitting step goals. For these businesses, making sure their customers stay healthy can save lots of money in years to come as healthier people get sick less often and they are less likely to collect on their policies.
It's certainly possible that technology could eliminate fitness tracker spoofing. The Apple Watch, which tracks steps in addition to a host of other biological signals, can tell when it's strapped to a human arm.