A second “biometrics is evil” post (Amazon One)

This is a follow-up to something I wrote a couple of weeks ago. I concluded that earlier post by noting that when you say that something needs to be replaced because it is bad, you need to evaluate the replacement to see if it is any better…or worse.

First, the recap

Before moving forward, let me briefly recap my points from the earlier post. If you like, you can read the entire post here.

  • Amazon is incentivizing customers ($10) to sign up for its Amazon One palm print program.
  • Amazon is not the first company to use biometrics to speed retail purchases. Pay By Touch, the University of Maryland Dining Hall have already done this, as well as every single store that lets you use Apple Pay, Google Pay, or Samsung Pay.
  • Amazon One is not only being connected in the public eye to unrelated services such as Amazon Rekognition, and to unrelated studies such as Gender Shades (which dealt with classification, not recognition), but has been accused of “asking people to sell their bodies.” Yet companies that offer similar services are not being demonized in the same way.
  • If you don’t use Amazon One to pay for your purchases, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you are protected from surveillance. I’ll dive into that in this post.

Now that we’re caught up, let’s look at the latest player to enter the Amazon One controversy.

Yes, U.S. Senators can be bipartisan

If you listen to the “opinion” news services, you get the feeling that the United States Senate has devolved into two warring factions that can’t get anything done. But Senators have always worked together (see Edward Kennedy and Dan Quayle), and they continue to work together today.

Specifically, three Senators are working together to ask Amazon a few questions: Bill Cassidy, M.D. (R-LA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Jon Ossoff (D-GA).

And naturally they issued a press release about it.

Now arguments can be made about whether Congressional press releases and hearings merely constitute grandstanding, or whether they are serious attempts to better the nation. Of course, anything that I oppose is obviously grandstanding, and anything I support is obviously a serious effort.

But for the moment let’s assume that the Senators have serious concerns about the privacy of American consumers, and that the nation demands answers to these questions from Amazon.

Here are the Senators’ questions, from the press release:

  1. Does Amazon have plans to expand Amazon One to additional Whole Foods, Amazon Go, and other Amazon store locations, and if so, on what timetable? 
  2. How many third-party customers has Amazon sold (or licensed) Amazon One to? What privacy protections are in place for those third parties and their customers?
  3. How many users have signed up for Amazon One? 
  4. Please describe all the ways you use data collected through Amazon One, including from third-party customers. Do you plan to use data collected through Amazon One devices to personalize advertisements, offers, or product recommendations to users? 
  5. Is Amazon One user data, including the Amazon One ID, ever paired with biometric data from facial recognition systems? 
  6. What information do you provide to consumers about how their data is being used? How will you ensure users understand and consent to Amazon One’s data collection, storage, and use practices when they link their Amazon One and Amazon account information?
  7. What actions have you taken to ensure the security of user data collected through Amazon One?

So when will we investigate other privacy-threatening technologies?

In a sense, the work of these three Senators should be commended, because if Amazon One is not implemented properly, serious privacy breaches could happen which could adversely impact American citizens. And this is the reason why many states and municipalities have moved to restrict the use of biometrics by private businesses.

And we know that Amazon is evil, because Slate said so back in January 2020.

The online bookseller has evolved into a giant of retail, resale, meal delivery, video streaming, cloud computing, fancy produce, original entertainment, cheap human labor, smart home tech, surveillance tech, and surveillance tech for smart homes….The company’s “last mile” shipping operation has led to burnout, injuries, and deaths, all connected to a warehouse operation that, while paying a decent minimum wage, is so efficient in part because it treats its human workers like robots who sometimes get bathroom breaks.

But why stop with Amazon? After all, Slate’s list included 29 other companies (while Amazon tops the list, other “top”-ranked companies include Facebook, Alphabet, Palantir Technologies, and Uber), to say nothing of entire industries that are capable of massive privacy violations.

Privacy breaches are not just tied to biometric systems, but can be tied to any system that stores private data. Restricting or banning biometric systems won’t solve anything, since all of these abuses could potentially occur on other systems.

  • When will the Senators ask these same questions to Apple, Google (part of the aforementioned Alphabet), and Samsung to find out when these companies will expand their “Pay” services? They won’t even have to ask all seven questions, because we already know the answer to question 5.
  • Oh, and while we’re at it, what about Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover, and similar credit card services that are often tied to information from our bank accounts? How do these firms personalize their offerings? Who can buy all that data?
  • And while we’re looking at credit cards, what about the debit cards issued by the banks, which are even more vulnerable to abuse. Let’s have the banks publicly reveal all the ways in which they protect user data.
  • You know, you have to watch out for those money orders also. How often do money order issuers ask consumers to show their government ID? What happens to that data?
  • Oh, and what about those gift cards that stores issue? What happens to the location and purchase data that is collected for those gift cards?
  • When people use cash to pay for goods, what is the resolution of the surveillance cameras that are trained on the cash registers? Can those surveillance cameras read the serial numbers on the bills that are exchanged? What assurances can the stores give that they are not tracking those serial numbers as they flow through the economy?

If you think that it’s silly to shut down every single payment system that could result in a privacy violation…you’re right.

Obviously if Amazon is breaking federal law, it should be prosecuted accordingly.

And if Amazon is breaking state law (such as Illinois BIPA law), then…well, that’s not the Senators’ business, that’s the business of class action lawyers.

But now the ball is in Amazon’s court, and Amazon will either provide thousands of pages of documents, a few short answers, a response indicating that the Senators are asking for confidential information on future product plans, or (unlikely with Amazon, but possible with other companies) a reply stating that the Senators can go pound sand.

Either way, the “Amazon is evil” campaign will continue.

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