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Un-Fit Bits Will Help You Cheat Your Fitness Tracker And Keep Your Privacy

Go ahead, sit on your couch while your tracking device does all the work.

If you belong to certain health insurance companies–like the New York-based startup Oscar–you can save a little money on your premium if you strap on a Fitbit and walk a certain number of steps.

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That’s great, if you want to be healthy. But if you want to game the system, you can simply hang your Fitbit from a special pendulum or drill designed by artists, and let the machine do the work.

The artists created “Unfit-Bits” as a criticism of the issues inherent as companies start to access data from every part of our day. It isn’t only insurance companies that want to know how much you’re exercising; employers are also starting to hand out trackers to save on their own costs. BP’s North American division gave out thousands of Fitbits to employees last year and offers rewards when someone reaches goals. Target is giving its employees 335,000 devices this year.

“Activity trackers are collecting what is a very personal data set, and many also log heart rates and GPS location in addition to step counts,” says Tega Brain, who created Unfit-Bits with Surya Mattu. “From this data, it is possible to see how long you sleep, how many times you wake in the night, and your sexual activities. Do you want your employer in possession of a dataset that shows how often you’re having sex?”

She points out that emerging health data field doesn’t yet have an established code of ethics. It wasn’t until September that Fitbit became HIPAA-compliant.

The artists also noticed some injustice in the new discount programs.

“We started to think about the groups of people who these programs leave out, people who are unable to walk a lot day to day–cab drivers, subway drivers, overworked office workers and folks who can’t afford active adventure weekends,” says Tega Brain, who created Unfit-Bits with Surya Mattu. “As personal data continues to be equated to financial gain, we wanted to make a platform that would give these groups access to the benefits of these new financial schemes.”

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They also questioned how well a FitBit can track overall health. “Health is a complex thing,” she says. “The aim of this work is also to point out that steps taken is hardly a nuanced or holistic indicator for an individual’s health. Fitness trackers do not track all physical activities equally, and tying the activities they do track to financial gain could also have cultural implications of what we consider to be a healthy lifestyle.”

The project also points out inherent flaws with the design of some trackers–if you accidentally put your Fitbit through the wash, your spin cycle will help you meet your quota for the day. It’s hard for companies to know that someone isn’t cheating.

“If the incentives are there, any system that can be gamed is likely to be gamed eventually,” Brain says. “This is part of the problem of the push to outsource reason to computational analysis.”

Unfit-Bits isn’t just an art project; the artists plan to actually sell their devices, despite potential legality or fraud issues.

“A concern we have is that rather than recognizing the limitations of the technology companies will impose strict penalties and fines on the mishandling of these devices,” she says. “Is it fraud if you leave your tracker in the washing machine or if it accidentally counts you writing as steps? How this plays out is yet to be seen.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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