Today’s “biometrics is evil” post (Amazon One)

I can’t recall who recorded it, but there’s a radio commercial heard in Southern California (and probably nationwide) that intentionally ridicules people who willingly give up their own personally identifiable information (PII) for short-term gain. In the commercial, both the husband and the wife willingly give away all sorts of PII, including I believe their birth certificates.

While voluntary surrender of PII happens all the time (when was the last time you put your business card in a drawing bowl at a restaurant?), people REALLY freak out when the information that is provided is biometric in nature. But are the non-biometric alternatives any better?

TechCrunch, Amazon One, and Ten Dollars

TechCrunch recently posted “Amazon will pay you $10 in credit for your palm print biometrics.

If you think that the article details an insanely great way to make some easy money from Amazon, then you haven’t been paying attention to the media these last few years.

The article begins with a question:

How much is your palm print worth?

The article then describes how Amazon’s brick-and-mortar stores in several states have incorporated a new palm print scanner technology called “Amazon One.” This technology, which reads both friction ridge and vein information from a shopper’s palms. This then is then associated with a pre-filed credit card and allows the shopper to simply wave a palm to buy the items in the shopping cart.

There is nothing new under the sun

Amazon One is the latest take on processes that have been implemented several times before. I’ll cite three examples.

Pay By Touch. The first one that comes to my mind is Pay By Touch. While the management of the company was extremely sketchy, the technology (provided by Cogent, now part of Thales) was not. In many ways the business idea was ahead of its time, and it had to deal with challenging environmental conditions: the fingerprint readers used for purchases were positioned near the entrances/exits to grocery stores, which could get really cold in the winter. Couple this with the elderly population that used the devices, and it was sometimes difficult to read the fingers themselves. Yet, this relatively ancient implementation is somewhat similar to what Amazon is doing today.

University of Maryland Dining Hall. The second example occurred to me because it came from my former employer (MorphoTrak, then part of Safran and now part of IDEMIA), and was featured at a company user conference for which I coordinated speakers. There’s a video of this solution, but sadly it is not public. I did find an article describing the solution:

With the new system students will no longer need a UMD ID card to access their own meals…

Instead of pulling out a card, the students just wave their hand through a MorphoWave device. And this allows the students to pay for their meals QUICKLY. Good thing when you’re hungry.

This Pay and That Pay. But the most common example that everyone uses is Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, or whatever “pay” system is supported on your smartphone. Again, you don’t have to pull out a credit card or ID card. You just have to look at your phone or swipe your finger on the phone, and payment happens.

Amazon One is the downfall of civilization

I don’t know if TechCrunch editorialized against Pay By Touch or [insert phone vendor here] Pay, and it probably never heard of the MorphoWave implementation at the University of Maryland. But Amazon clearly makes TechCrunch queasy.

While the idea of contactlessly scanning your palm print to pay for goods during a pandemic might seem like a novel idea, it’s one to be met with caution and skepticism given Amazon’s past efforts in developing biometric technology. Amazon’s controversial facial recognition technology, which it historically sold to police and law enforcement, was the subject of lawsuits that allege the company violated state laws that bar the use of personal biometric data without permission.

Oh well, at least TechCrunch didn’t say that Amazon was racist. (If you haven’t already read it, please read the Security Industry Association’s “What Science Really Says About Facial Recognition Accuracy and Bias Concerns.” Unless you don’t like science.)

OK, back to Amazon and Amazon One. TechCrunch also quotes Albert Fox Cahn of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project.

People Leaving the Cities, photo art by Zbigniew Libera, imagines a dystopian future in which people have to leave dying metropolises. By Zbigniew Libera – https://artmuseum.pl/pl/kolekcja/praca/libera-zbigniew-wyjscie-ludzi-z-miast, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66055122.

“The dystopian future of science fiction is now. It’s horrifying that Amazon is asking people to sell their bodies, but it’s even worse that people are doing it for such a low price.”

“Sell their bodies.” Isn’t it even MORE dystopian when people “give their bodies away for free” when they sign up for Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Samsung Pay? While the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (acronym STOP) expresses concern about digital wallets, there is a significant lack of horror in its description of them.

Digital wallets and contactless payment systems like smart chips have been around for years. The introduction of Apple Pay, Amazon Pay, and Google Pay have all contributed to the e-commerce movement, as have fast payment tools like Venmo and online budgeting applications. In response to COVID-19, the public is increasingly looking for ways to reduce or eliminate physical contact. With so many options already available, contactless payments will inevitably gain momentum….

Without strong federal laws regulating the use of our data, we’re left to rely on private companies that have consistently failed to protect our information. To prevent long-term surveillance, we need to limit the data collected and shared with the government to only what is needed. Any sort of monitoring must be secure, transparent, proportionate, temporary, and must allow for a consumer to find out about or be alerted to implications for their data. If we address these challenges now, at a time when we will be generating more and more electronic payment records, we can ensure our privacy is safeguarded.

So STOP isn’t calling for the complete elimination of Amazon Pay. But apparently it wants to eliminate Amazon One.

Is a world without Amazon One a world with less surveillance?

Whenever you propose to eliminate something, you need to look at the replacement and see if it is any better.

In 1998, Fox fired Bill Russell as the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He had a win-loss percentage of .538. His replacement, Glenn Hoffman, lasted less than a season and had a percentage of .534. Hoffman’s replacement, true baseball man Davey Johnson, compiled a percentage of .503 over the next two seasons before he was fired. Should have stuck with Russell.

Anyone who decides (despite the science) that facial recognition is racist is going to have to rely on other methods to identify criminals, such as witness identification. Witness identification has documented inaccuracies.

And if you think that elimination of Amazon One from Amazon’s brick-and-mortar stores will lead to a privacy nirvana, think again. If you don’t use your palm to pay for things, you’re going to have to use a credit card, and that data will certainly be scanned by the FBI and the CIA and the BBC, B. B. King, and Doris Day. (And Matt Busby, of course.) And even if you use cash, the only way that you’ll preserve any semblance of your privacy is to pay anonymously and NOT tie the transaction to your Amazon account.

And if you’re going to do that, you might as well skip Whole Foods and go straight to Dollar General. Or maybe not, since Dollar General has its own app. And no one calls Dollar General dystopian. Wait, they do: “They tend to cluster, like scavengers feasting on the carcasses of the dead.”

I seemed to have strayed from the original point of this post.

But let me sum up. It appears that biometrics is evil, Amazon is evil, and Amazon biometrics are Double Secret Evil.

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