Lawsuit Claims Apple Watch Feature ‘Biased’ Against Dark Skin

On Christmas Eve, Apple, Inc. was served a class-action lawsuit claiming that the pulse oximetry feature on the Apple Watch does not work for people with a “darker skin tone.”

Plaintiff Alex Morales of New York filed a multi-state lawsuit against the tech giant under consumer fraud laws last week. According to Morales, he purchased an Apple Watch between 2020 and 2021 but was unaware that the pulse oximetry feature was “biased.”

“For decades, there have been reports that such devices were significantly less accurate in measuring blood oxygen levels based on skin color,” the lawsuit alleges. “The ‘real world significance’ of this bias lay unaddressed until the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic, which converged with a greater awareness of structural racism which exists in many aspects of society.”

According to the lawsuit, pulse oximetry records taken during and before the pandemic were used to demonstrate clinical signs of racial bias. As a result, “reliance on pulse oximetry to triage patients and adjust supplemental oxygen levels may place Black patients at increased risk for hypoxemia.”

The watch helps doctors monitor blood oxygen levels through regular readings recorded by the patient on the device. When faced with equally low levels of blood oxygenation, White patients had increased access to care due to the watch’s defects.

A Food and Drug Administration panel discussed studies indicating that people with darker skin tones register higher oxygen level readings with pulse oximeter devices. Studies noted that researchers identified the problem with wearable medical devices that had incorrect readings in the 1990s — the inaccuracies in oximeter readings have seemingly been unaddressed and unchanged since the discovery.

The new lawsuit followed the 2015 suit concerning skin when users cited black wrist tattoos interfering with the device’s heart sensor. At the time, Apple noted that the saturation of tattoos could block light from the sensor, causing unreliable readings.