Apple sued for ‘racial bias’ in Apple Watch blood oxygen meter

A class action lawsuit has been filed against Apple in New York. He is seeking damages for the lesser effectiveness of Apple Watch technology when worn by someone with darker skin.

The documents were filed on Dec. 24 and say the design of the Apple Watch series puts people with darker skin to “an increased risk of hypoxemia.”

Only one plaintiff is mentioned in the initial filing, a Mr. Alex Morales, but he seeks to represent everyone in a similar position, and damages of a figure that “exceeds $5 million”.

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This claim relates to the Blood Oxygen feature of Apple Watches. Some studies have shown that its pulse oximeter technology can give deceptively high oxygen saturation results for people with darker skin tones. This is a side effect of how the technology works, by monitoring the amount of light reflected from an LED that emits red and infrared light waves.

Oxygenated hemoglobin absorbs more red light than non-oxygenated hemoglobin, while the reverse applies to infrared light. If the wearer’s skin naturally absorbs more red light because it is darker, the sensor is likely to estimate a higher SpO2 reading.

One of the main weaknesses of the class action is that pulse oximetry is used in the wearable device market and in health devices. Its issues and limitations are in no way specific to the Apple Watch.

The filing also suggests that the Apple Watch puts people with darker skin at risk because it could be used to “triage” people, suggesting its use in a medical or healthcare setting, for people with poor blood oxygenation. is considerably reduced.

However, Apple itself says that’s not how the watch’s blood oxygenation feature should be used.

“Measurements taken with the Blood Oxygen app are not intended for medical use and are intended for general fitness and wellness purposes only,” reads Apple’s website.

A study published in December 2021 also found that obese people tend to see inaccurate results from wearable devices using this technology.

SpO2 readings were added to the Apple Watch lineup in 2020, with the Apple Watch Series 6. In the 2022/2023 lineup, it’s available in the Apple Watch Series 8 and Apple Watch Ultra, but not in the Apple Watch SE.

Similar pulse oximetry technology is used by competing watches and trackers from companies such as Garmin, Samsung and Fitbit. Finger blood oxygen meters also use the same basic technique, although they typically place the LED and light sensor on opposite sides of your finger. They analyze the light that passes through your finger, not the reflected light.

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