Not Hands Free: Amazon expands biometric palm scanning

February 28, 2021

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3 min read

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What's going on here?

Online retail giant, Amazon, is expanding its biometric palm scanning system, to enable more customers to pay purely with their hands

What does this mean?

The palm scanning system, also known as “Amazon One”, was launched in September 2020 at two of Seattle’s Amazon Go convenience stores as an alternative to their mobile QR code payment system. The palm scanning technology enables customers to pay, present loyalty cards, and enter locations by scanning their palms. The store associates the customer’s handprint with their personal account and will charge them automatically as they shop. Due to the success of the project in the trial stores, the payment system is now being rolled out to further stores in Seattle: three new Amazon Go locations as well as select Amazon Books and Amazon 4-star stores. 

What's the big picture effect?

Once again, the pandemic has pushed businesses and consumers to utilise and invest in innovation. Many shoppers and businesses have opted to use contactless payments to avoid the needless touching of keypads, and Amazon’s palm scanning technology has taken this a step further. The palm signatures are made using “custom built algorithms and hardware” which is able to scan “distinct features on and below the surface” of a customer’s palm when held over a scanner for about one second. Similar technology uses vein patterns; these differ from person to person and remain constant throughout one’s lifetime. Thus, this form of payment is particularly difficult to fake, change or steal. 

However, this raises privacy concerns. Amazon considers palm recognition to be more private than other types of biometric identifiers. This has not stopped the privacy group, Big Brother Watch, from criticising the development saying that “no one should have to provide biometric data in order to buy goods or services”. Understandably, many people may be hesitant to hand over their biometric data to big corporations like Amazon, especially considering that Amazon is already facing legal issues in the US over biometric privacy (the lawsuit alleges that Amazon failed to meet the informed consent requirements of the Biometric Information Privacy Act). As such, in order for Amazon to facilitate adoption of this technology, they must first build consumer trust and demonstrate that they can be responsible with the data they collect. 

As biometric payment methods such as facial recognition and fingerprint cards become more common, Amazon could reap greater rewards by licensing its technology to companies who want to offer biometric payment options. Given that the hardware and algorithms are custom made by Amazon, it is possible that third-party retailers will look to purchase the rights to implement the technology in their own stores. Additionally, Amazon has indicated an intent to offer the technology to companies beyond the retail sphere, so we could soon be using palm scanners for entry into offices and other venues. 

So how soon could we expect the technology to be widely used? It may not be long. With Amazon being such a well-established player with a large customer base, the payments industry will likely be forced to produce similar innovation or face losing customers to Amazon. Inevitably, for developments like this one, we can expect to see increased regulation over the use and security of biometric data. How this regulation will look is unclear, but what is clear is that we need to start thinking about just how much personal information we want to share with corporations.

Report written by Julie Lawford

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