In short: Apple is facing a class action lawsuit alleging that the blood oxygen sensor in the company’s smartwatch does not provide accurate results for users with a darker skin tone. It adds that Apple failed to “recognize the shortcomings of pulse oximetry in general in relation to people of color.”
The lawsuit, filed by plaintiff Alex Morales in New York on Saturday, highlights decades of research that indicates that pulse oximeter technology is ineffective at measuring blood oxygen levels with darker skin tones. The lawsuit states that the researchers “confirmed the clinical significance of the racial bias of pulse oximetry using patient records taken during and before the pandemic.” The problem was particularly serious during the Covid-19 crisis, when pulse oximeter technology was used in hospitals to check oxygen levels in patients, the suit notes.
Morales bought an Apple Watch between 2020 and 2021. He was aware of the function of pulse oximetry, but expected that it would not take into account the “biases and defects” in relation to darker skin that had been shown in previous studies.
“Because health care recommendations are based on indications of oxygen levels in their blood, white patients have more opportunities to get help than people with darker skin when faced with the same low level of blood oxygenation,” the lawsuit says.
Apple says its blood oxygen feature, which has been around since the Apple Watch Series 6, uses four groups of LEDs on the back of the wearable device to compensate for “natural skin changes.” The emitted light is reflected and read by photodiodes. The diodes transmit this data to the Blood Oxygen application, which measures blood oxygen saturation (SpO2) based on color variations.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of all New York City consumers who bought an Apple Watch during the statute of limitations. Morales also sued on behalf of residents of Alaska, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming under those states’ consumer fraud laws.
The lawsuit also accuses Apple of violating explicit warranties, fraud and unjust enrichment, as well as violating New York General Commercial Law and the state Consumer Fraud Law.
Apple Insider reports that this isn’t the first time Apple has faced complaints about the watch’s sensor. In 2015, users claimed that black tattoos on his wrists interfered with the operation of his heart monitor. Apple wrote that dark tattoos can block light from the sensor, which makes it difficult to get reliable readings, but did not mention skin tones.