|Sensor Representation (Statnews.com)|
Fitbit has recently been in the news for having inaccurate sensors on people of color. There has been various research regarding their products accuracy as a whole mainly from 2017 and 2020. There has been research to support the claim that Fitbit’s sensors aren't strong enough to track heart properly in consumers that have a high level of melanin in their skin.
This paper will analyze this case on Fitbit through 4 ethical theory standpoints. It will be analyzed by individualism, utilitarianism, Kantianism, and virtue theory. An individualist would believe this case to be ethical as Fitbit is attempting to generate more profit within the law. Utilitarian standpoint would find this case unethical because Fitbit is not maximizing the happiness of all beings able to experience happiness because their products don't work properly on people with darker skin tone. Immanuel Kant and Kantianism would also find this case unethical based on high levels of dishonesty and the lack of trust that would come from this situation if this case was applied to everyone. Lastly, virtue theory would find this case unethical because of the dishonesty, greed, and absence of the 4 cardinal virtues. There are various people that this case affects outside of the primary stakeholder being the customer and this includes investors, competitors, and chairmen. Something that can be done to help fix this case would be to invest in infrared sensor technology that Apple uses in their smartwatch to increase accuracy. Another thing that can be done is Fitbit can showcase their technology to the public and focus their efforts on making technology that supports all parties.
Fitbit was founded in 2007 by James Park in San Francisco California. The company grew large enough to become publicly traded on the stock market on June 18th 2015.
Fitbit offers various wearable products like smart watches, trackers, and other products that help track health measurements. They also have apps for Fitbit that help track sleep and keep updated on your personal data. Fitbits mission is to “empower and inspire you to live a healthier, more active life. We design products and experiences that fit seamlessly into your life so you can achieve your health and fitness goals, whatever they may be” (Fitbit)
Fitbit Sensor Inaccuracies Among People of Color
Fitbit, along with other smartwatch and wearable health monitors have been exposed for an accuracy issue. The issue that is flying under the radar is the fact that Fitbit trackers have an increased rate of inaccuracy in people of color. After various research and studies regarding the accuracy of wearable optical heart rate sensors, there have been multiple conclusions made based on the results that show skin tone plays a role in the accuracy of data. The two main measurements Fitbit tracks is heart rate and energy expenditure. The primary focus of most of the inaccuracies revolve around heart rate tracking.
The issue in the Fitbit technology is that they along with other companies use a green light to track heart rate. The light is supposed to reflect the light from your bloodstream back into the watch so when “there is less blood at the wrist, more light is being reflected back to the sensor which allows the device to monitor the user's heart rate” (Samson) The problem occurs when the green light is used on people of color, there is an increased level of melanin in the skin which absorbs the green light preventing it from reading the blood properly. Fitbit says that it boosted the strength of the green light to fight this problem but it's still not as powerful as the infrared light which is more accurate and used in the Apple Watch. This infrared light is not used in Fitbit as it costs more money than the green light technology.
This becomes a problem when an African American man like Vernon Ross aged 49, uses a Fitbit to monitor his heart rate. He had been diagnosed with elevated blood pressure and used the Fitbit as a tool to track heart rate in order to help with his blood pressure. Ross eventually realized his numbers were fluctuating at an unorthodox level and did not match up with manually checking his pulse. (Stat News) This represents an issue because if a company like Fitbit is cutting corners to save money but it can cost a consumer important information, there becomes a lack of reliability and trust in the company. This is not simply a phenomenon because there is data to back it up.
A study from 2017 published to MDPI shows that variables “such as darker skin tone, larger wrist circumference, and higher BMI were found to correlate positively with increased HR error rates” (Christle, Hastie) Another study from 2020 out of The National Center for Biotechnology Information tested similar variables across various watches including Fitbit. They tested the hypothesis of skin tone affecting monitor readings and said that “Skin tone appears to not be the driver of mean absolute error or mean directional error” (Bent, Goldstein, Kibbe, Dunn). Although this may show favor for Fitbit regarding these skin tone claims, the study also reported that there was “significant interaction between skin tone and device,” meaning that depending on the device used by the consumer, skin tone can play a role in the accuracy as mentioned prior. The statistics show that an Apple watch has the lowest mean absolute error and Fitbit slightly shoots up in mean absolute error next to Apple along with most other companies. This is problematic as Fitbit is arguably a top 3 competitor when it comes to these products and if their accuracy does not match their reputation and prices, there will be concern among stakeholders.
Fitbit released statements regarding the skin color reading issues and said that “we specifically designed our optical system to emit green light at sufficient strength to effectively penetrate darker skin and our detector to be sensitive enough to accurately detect the heart rate signal” Apple also released statements saying similar things along harping on the fact that Apple Watches use infrared on top of the green light for increased accuracy rates.
Arguably the biggest problem that arises out of this is it seems like green light technology is used in most sensors which in some cases is clearly inaccurate with darker skin tones. The Stat article references Steven LeBeouf, the co-founder and president of Valencell a biometric sensor development company. LeBeouf claims that “If you were to dip your hand into a random pile of sensors, you would see that 9 times out of 10, they would have green light, and in probably most cases, they’re only green light”. This becomes a scary thought considering Fitbits website as of November 2020, has their most expensive smartwatch the Versa 3, listed at $229 with a description of their new Pure Pulse 2.0 technology. Their website's heart rate technology description says a “sensor shines a green light onto the skin, and light detectors called photobodies measure how much light is being absorbed”. There was no mention of infrared technology that Apple uses which is proven more accurate. It is questionable to see this technology on their top of the line product when the company also claims that accuracy means so much to them.
It is worth noting that in Stat’s article, they referenced Massimiliano de Zambotti, a researcher at SRI International and how he explained that research for this technology is a slow process but the advancement of the technology is moving at a fast rate making it hard to come to full on conclusions. This is a current issue that could be resolved very soon but it's not promising considering the cost implications of the green light technology along with the lack of companies alongside Fitbit having the same issues. As mentioned before, the first reporting of research that arose with this skin tone issue came from 2017 and there has been refined research in 2020.
The stakeholders in this case are primarily the consumers of Fitbits, the chairmen, and head technological employees. The consumers and specifically consumers of color are most affected by this because of the decline of accuracy in the product for those types of consumers. Also, other consumers who know this may think this is morally wrong. The chairmen of Fitbit are also involved because this is something that can directly affect their company’s reputation and ultimately their sales. The head technological employees including director and chief technology officer Eric Friedman is a stakeholder as he must be accounted for regarding technological faults. The decision to purchase and use cheap sensors could have come from anyone in the company, but more likely than not it was a collaborative decision between Fitbits elite level employees. Others who are of interest in this case are investors in the publicly traded Fitbit. They would like to know how the future reputation of a company they are investing in will be affected if a case like this becomes a larger, world wide scale newsworthy issue. This can become an issue for everyone involved in the investing in Fitbit because there are some big groups that hold shares in Fitbit including DNB Asset Management AS, The Vanguard Group, and Goldman Sachs to name a few.
One way to look at individualism according to Milton Friedman is that the only goal of business is to profit within the constraints of the law. If the case regarding Fitbit is analyzed from Friedman’s style on individualism, it would be said that nothing they did broke the law. The case does seem slightly racially biased but there was no full on bias in terms of the sensors and skin color. It is more of a sensor flaw and a technological shortcoming rather than a product made specifically discriminating against a certain type of person. Fitbit is simply making an economical decision by purchasing cheaper sensors to make more profit on their watches which an individualist would have no issue with. This is not an example of an unethical act in terms of individualism.
It is worth noting the multiple lawsuits Fitbit has had to deal with over the past 5 years though. There was a popular lawsuit against Fitbit that made the news in 2016 stating that “The Fitbit Charge HR & Surge are inaccurate at high intensity exercise” (McLellan, Black, Urban). It also claimed it was dangerous to people because some customers use it as a health monitor. Along with this there have been a few class action lawsuits concerning similar issues. The lawsuits also lead to a lawsuit filed by investors as Fitbit’s stock fell 5.8% the day after first announcements of the lawsuit against them regarding heart rate monitors. One of the class action lawsuits was granted and customers who purchased certain defective watches were entitled to $12.50 payment for the issues. So, in this case Friedman would see this as anti-individualism because Fitbit was claiming their product was doing something that it cannot do which is properly track heart rate, sleep, and more. They were making profit but not within the law in this scenario. In terms of the most recent issue regarding skin color and accuracy there has not yet been a lawsuit.
Another way of looking at individualism according to Tibor Machan is that the only direct goal of business is to profit, and the primary obligation of the businessperson is to maximize the profit. (Salazar, 17) If the Fitbit case is analyzed from this standpoint in the short term, they have made nothing but productive business moves as they are making more profit on their watches as they don’t spend significant money on the sensors. They are doing what they can to make profit no matter the cost. The problem could arise if another lawsuit comes from this issue because Fitbit’s stock in the past has taken hits from these lawsuits. In the short run Machan would find this to be ethical because as a business they are doing everything they can to stay financially thriving. Fitbits stock price has dropped almost 20 dollars a share since 2015 so they need to do as much as they can now to get away with making more profit.
Utilitarianism revolves around everyone involved in the situation and not just the company or one individual. Utilitarianism attempts to maximize happiness and minimize unhappiness in any being that can possibly be happy. Also, “Utilitarianism tells us that
we can determine the ethical significance of any action by looking to the consequences of that act” (DesJardins 29).
Looking at all the stakeholders and how they were affected, the consumers were most affected in this case as they were the ones spending money on a product claiming abilities that it has not followed through on. From a utilitarian standpoint, this case would be unethical because the consequences of the controversy directly affect the quality of the product on certain skin colors. The decision to use cheap sensors directly affects people with darker skin color as the accuracy of the product declines for them. The consumer purchases this product to “Tell you how many times your heart is beating,” but it doesn’t at the level it should for certain consumers. (Fitbit) A Utilitarian would deem this unethical as not all consumers’ happiness is being maximized.
The other stakeholder involved that will be affected by this is Fitbit investors as they have been hurt in the past from Fitbit’s mistakes and likely could again. Shareholders’ happiness will not be maximized at all when they read these articles and reviews concerning the accuracy of sensors on skin color. Especially in the socially sensitive state our country is in right now this can become an astronomical problem for Fitbit’s shareholders. A utilitarian would find this case unethical because of these effects on shareholders along with the minimization of happiness in terms of customer satisfaction. Also, the chairmen of the company don't have to receive the burden the other stakeholders have as they are likely well off and making good money.
Kantianism the ethical theory created by Immanuel Kant revolves around rationality and good will. Kantianism is against exploitation and manipulation of others for personal gain. The main ethical guideline the Kant believed in was what he called the categorical imperative. This is the universal ethical principle that one should always respect the humanity of others, and that one should only act in accordance with rules that could hold for everyone. The Fitbit case is an interesting case to be viewed from a Kantian perspective because you can instantly make an argument that there is a lot of manipulation and more so exploitation of customers. One of Kant's main rules is to never “lie, cheat, manipulate or harm others to get your way” (Salazar 17). To begin with lying, Fitbit lied to their customers by claiming their PurePulse technology is supposed to be strong and efficient enough to track heart rates for everyone. They have lost lawsuits over this exact claim and have these more recent skin color issues. They are cheating their customers and shareholders by releasing these new products with new technology that still doesn't track health measurements as well as it should or as well as the competition with infrared sensors. The shareholders get cheated by this as they purchase stock at a higher price than it should really be valued at. Lastly customers that use Fitbit as a health monitoring system can be harmed as their numbers can be askew and disrupt their health management like the case mentioned before. All of this cheating, lying, and harming just to make more profit for the chairmen is why Kantianism would find this unethical.
As mentioned before that Kant believes that one should only act in accordance with rules that can be held for everyone. Well if every company used cheaper technology to create more profit for themselves and this resulted in inaccurate, insufficient, or inefficient products and services, there would be no trust in the world of businesses. Consumers and businesses could have no short term or long-term trust and relationships as everyone would know that they were being exploited. This is why the Fitbit case is unethical in terms of Kantianism.
Green Light Sensor
Virtue theory established by Aristotle revolves around character rather than actions of individuals as the past three ethical theories are. (Salazar 22) Virtue theory is heavy on rationality and being rational in life in order to live a virtuous lifestyle. There are 4 main virtues known as the cardinal virtues. These include honesty, courage, temperance, and justice. In the business world some of the worst or most damaging vices have been greed, dishonesty, and selfishness. (Salazar 23) These vices reside with the Fitbit case as dishonesty especially stands out in relation to the case because they were not honest with their customers about their products. They develop new technology and sell their products at a sometimes-high cost and their products end up lacking accuracy. It's not honest and courageous to be cheap to your customers and especially a certain group of your customers. It would be courageous for Fitbit to invest in newer, more expensive, and more accurate technology in their products in order to maintain trust and honesty with their customers but they haven't done that. Fitbit is not being just to their consumers as they are lacking in creating the best product they possibly can.
Virtue theory includes the concept of beings “fulfilling his purpose and potential” (Salazar 23). Fitbit in this case is not fulfilling their full potential as they are the fifth largest wearable company but yet they still come up short on their product accuracy. It's not like they don't have the name and funds to input technology that fulfills their products purpose and potential.
Personally, I think Fitbit has been in the news too often for their technological inaccuracies that they need to make a change. The most recent complaints about accuracy and skin color is something that can blow up into a big problem and make Fitbits problems even worse fast. I think it's unethical to have technology that does not work to the best of its ability on people of color. It's clearly not made to discriminate against people with darker skin, but the technology used shouldn't only work on certain consumers. It also brings upon a larger discussion which is general bias in the business world. Products shouldn’t be made to have white people be the “Default,” product user. I think Fitbit is being unethical but also lacking financial guidance because yes, they might be saving money by using the weaker sensors but their reputation and trust from consumers is more valuable in the long run.
Based on the skin color effects aspect of this whole case, I personally think from a business standpoint, it's such a bad optic to have something like this in the news about your product. Like mentioned prior, it was clearly not made to be discriminating but you can't be as big a company as Fitbit is and let something like this get through testing and research. I think it's just an unprofessional and unethical behavior from a company that really should be avoiding that.
I think what needs to be done is a full-on overhaul of their current PurePulse2 technology. It's not working properly at a rate that is helping Fitbit grow into a trusted company and more diverse business overall. They need to take a page out of their competitions (Apple) book which would result in Fitbit using infrared technology that the Apple Watch uses. This technology doesn't rely on the green light sensors that Fitbit uses. It's more expensive but more reliable. Fitbit needs to take initiative in their reputation and customer satisfaction. They can't rely on being one of the leaders in the smartwatch/tracker market and just riding their sales out until one day it could get worse. They need to implement research and development for their customer satisfaction because the competition will only become worse if unethical actions keep taking place. Of course, upgrading to the more expensive sensor will possibly decrease profits in the short run unless they increase prices but it is a long run decision that you must bank on. I believe the odds would be in Fitbit’s favor if they made this switch because customers do care about trust and honesty when it comes to companies they purchase from.
In addition to these concrete changes from a technological standpoint, they can make changes in their business reputation by recognizing the bias that there is in the business world. They can publicly address this issue that is in the business world and make changes in their own company that would address this case. They need to come out with statements that say how they understand that there is some bias in business and they don't want to be a part of that and that's why they've invested so much money in new technology to ensure nobody is left out of the product they are offering.
Step 1- Overhaul of PurePulse2 technology. Invest and integrate infrared technology into every Fitbit tracker and smartwatch that is sold.
Step 2-Implement research and development department to look into customer satisfaction in the technological product field. Trust the company and spend money on reputation, satisfaction, and marketability to achieve long run goals.
Step 3- Publicly address general racial bias in the business world and step away from it. Become a large business who realizes it, and works against it in the community.
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Hailu, Ruth, et al. Fitbits, Other Wearables May Not Accurately Track Heart Rates in People of Color. 24 July 2019, www.statnews.com/2019/07/24/fitbit-accuracy-dark-skin/.
About Fitbit, www.fitbit.com/global/us/about-us.
Shcherbina, Anna, et al. “Accuracy in Wrist-Worn, Sensor-Based Measurements of Heart Rate and Energy Expenditure in a Diverse Cohort.” MDPI, Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 24 May 2017, www.mdpi.com/2075-4426/7/2/3/htm.
Times, Diane Samson Tech. “Popular Wearable Devices Like Fitbit Might Not Accurately Track Heart Rate Of People Of Color.” Tech Times, MENU Business Health Culture Features Buzz, 27 July 2019, www.techtimes.com/articles/244750/20190727/popular-wearable-devices-like-fitbit-might-not-accurately-track-heart-rate-of-people-of-color.htm.
Salazar, Heather. The Business Ethics Case Manual. n.d.