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.

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.

Is your home your castle when you use consumer doorbell facial recognition?

For purposes of this post, I will define three entities that can employ facial recognition:

  • Public organizations such as governments.
  • Private organizations such as businesses.
  • Individuals.

Some people are very concerned about facial recognition use by the first two categories of entities.

But what about the third category, individuals?

Can individuals assert a Constitutional right to use facial recognition in their own homes? And what if said individuals live in Peoria?

Concerns about ANY use of facial recognition

Let’s start with an ACLU article from 2018 regarding “Amazon’s Disturbing Plan to Add Face Surveillance to Your Front Door.”

Let me go out on a limb and guess that the ACLU opposes the practice.

The article was prompted by an Amazon 2018 patent application which involved both its Rekognition facial recognition service and its Ring cameras.

One of the figures in Amazon’s patent application, courtesy the ACLU. https://www.aclunc.org/docs/Amazon_Patent.pdf

While the main thrust of the ACLU article concerns acquisition of front door face surveillance (and other biometric) information by the government, it also briefly addresses the entity that is initially performing the face surveillance: namely, the individual.

Likewise, homeowners can also add photos of “suspicious” people into the system and then the doorbell’s facial recognition program will scan anyone passing their home.

I should note in passing that ACLU author Jacob Snow is describing a “deny list,” which flags people who should NOT be granted access such as that pesky solar power salesperson. In most cases, consumer products tout the use of an “allow list,” which flags people who SHOULD be granted access such as family members.

Regardless of whether you’re discussing a deny list or an allow list, the thrust of the ACLU article isn’t that governments shouldn’t use facial recognition. The thrust of the article is that facial recognition shouldn’t be used at all.

The ACLU and other civil rights groups have repeatedly warned that face surveillance poses an unprecedented threat to civil liberties and civil rights that must be stopped before it becomes widespread.

Again, not face surveillance by governments, but face surveillance period. People should not have the, um, “civil liberties” to use the technology.

But how does the tech world approach this?

The reason that I cited that particular ACLU article was that it was subsequently referenced in a CNET article from May 2021. This article bore the title “The best facial recognition security cameras of 2021.”

Let me go out on a limb and guess that CNET supports the practice.

The last part of author Megan Wollerton’s article delves into some of the issues regarding facial recognition use, including those raised by the ACLU. But the bulk of the article talks about really cool tech.

As I stated above, Wollerton notes that the intended use case for home facial recognition security systems involves the creation of an “allow list”:

Some home security cameras have facial recognition, an advanced option that lets you make a database of people who visit your house regularly. Then, when the camera sees a face, it determines whether or not it belongs to someone in your list of known faces. If the recognition system does not know who is at the door, it can alert you to an unknown person on your property.

Obviously you could repurpose such a system for anything you want, provided that you can obtain a clear picture of the face of the pesky social power salesperson.

Before posting her reviews of various security systems, and after a brief mention (expanded later in the article) about possible governmental misuse of facial recognition, Wollerton redirects the conversation.

But let’s step back a bit to the consumer realm. Your home is your castle, and the option of having surveillance cameras with facial recognition software is still compelling for those who want to be on the cutting edge of smart home innovation.

“Your home is your castle” may be a distinctly American concept, but it certainly applies here as organizations such as, um, the ACLU defend a person’s right against unreasonable actions by governments.

Obviously, there are limits to ANY Constitutional right. I cannot exercise my Fourth Amendment right to be secure in my house, couple that with my First Amendment right to freely exercise my religion, and conclude that I have the unrestricted right to perform ritual child sacrifices in my home. (Although I guess if I have a home theater and only my family members are present, I can probably yell “Fire!” all I want.)

So perhaps I could mount an argument that I can use facial recognition at my house any time I want, if the government agrees that this right is “reasonable.”

But it turns out that other people are involved.

You knew I was going to mention Illinois in this post

OK, it’s BIPA time.

As I previously explained in a January 2021 post about the Kami Doorbell Camera, “BIPA” is Illinois’ Biometric Information Privacy Act. This act imposes constraints on a private entity’s use of biometrics. (Governments are excluded in Illinois BIPA.) And here’s how BIPA defines the term “private entity”:

“Private entity” means any individual, partnership, corporation, limited liability company, association, or other group, however organized. A private entity does not include a State or local government agency. A private entity does not include any court of Illinois, a clerk of the court, or a judge or justice thereof.

Did you see the term “individual” in that definition?

So BIPA not only affects company use of biometrics, such as use of biometrics by Google or by a theme park or by a fitness center. It also affects an individual such as Harry or Harriet Homeowner’s use of biometrics.

As I previously noted, Google does not sell its Nest Cam “familiar face alert” feature in Illinois. But I guess it’s possible (via location spoofing if necessary) for someone to buy Nest Cam familiar face alerts in Indiana, and then sneak the feature across the border and implement it in the Land of Lincoln. But while this may (or may not) get Google off the hook, the individual is in a heap of trouble (should a trial lawyer decide to sue the individual).

Let’s face it. The average user of Nest Cam’s familiar face alerts, or the Kami Doorbell Camera, or any other home security camera with facial recognition (note that Amazon currently is not using facial recognition in its consumer products), is probably NOT complying with BIPA.

A private entity in possession of biometric identifiers or biometric information must develop a written policy, made available to the public, establishing a retention schedule and guidelines for permanently destroying biometric identifiers and biometric information when the initial purpose for collecting or obtaining such identifiers or information has been satisfied or within 3 years of the individual’s last interaction with the private entity, whichever occurs first.

I mean it’s hard enough for Harry and Harriet to get their teenage son to acknowledge receipt of the Homeowner family’s written policy for the use of the family doorbell camera. And you can forget about getting the pesky solar power salesperson to acknowledge receipt.

So from a legal perspective, it appears that any individual homeowner who installs a facial recognition security system can be hauled into civil court under BIPA.

But will these court cases be filed from a practical perspective?

Probably not.

When a social media company violates BIPA, the violation conceivably affects millions of individuals and can result in millions or billions of dollars in civil damages.

When the pesky solar power salesperson discovers that Harry and Harriet Homeowner, the damages would be limited to $1,000 or $5,000 plus relevant legal fees.

It’s not worth pursuing, any more than it’s worth pursuing the Illinois driver who is speeding down the expressway at 66 miles per hour.

Even Apple is moving to a service model. Biometric identity vendors are moving also.

Remember when you bought a big old hunk of hardware…and you owned it?

With cloud computing, significant portions of hardware were no longer owned by companies and people, but were instead provided as a service. And the companies moved from getting revenue from selling physical items to getting revenue from selling services.

From Apple Computer to Apple

Apple is one of those companies, as its formal name change from “Apple Computer” signifies.

Then “Apple Computer” circa 1978. From https://www.macrumors.com/2020/03/23/apple-computer-retail-sign/. Fair use.

Yet even as iTunes and “the” App Store become more prominent, Apple still made a mint out of selling new smartphone hardware to users as frequently as possible.

But Apple is making a change later in 2021, and Adrian Kingsley-Hughes noted the significance of that change.

The change?

So, it turns out that come the release of iOS 15 (and iPadOS 15) later this year, users will get a choice.

Quite an important choice.

iPhone users can choose to hit the update button and go down the iOS 15 route, or play it safe and stick with iOS 14.

Why is Apple supporting older hardware?

So Apple is no longer encouraging users to dump their old phones to keep up with new operating systems like the forthcoming iOS 15?

There’s a reason.

By sticking with iOS 14, iPhone users will continue to get security updates, which keeps their devices safe, and Apple gets to keep those users in the ecosystem.

They can continue to buy content and apps and pay for services such as iCloud.

Although Kingsley-Hughes doesn’t explicitly say it, there is a real danger when you force users to abandon your current product and choose another. (Trust me; I know this can happen.)

In Apple’s case, the danger is that the users could instead adopt a SAMSUNG product.

And these days, that not only means that you lose the sale of the hardware, but you also lose the sale of the services.

It’s important for Apple to support old hardware and retain the service revenue, because not only is its services business growing, but services are more profitable than hardware.

In the fiscal year 2019, Apple’s services business posted gross margins of 63.7%, approaching double the 32.2% gross margin of the company’s product sector. 

If current trends continue, Apple’s services (iCloud, Apple Music, AppleCare, Apple Card, Apple TV+, etc.) will continue to become relatively more important to the company.

The biometric identity industry is moving to a service model also

Incidentally, we’re seeing this in other industries, for example as the biometric identity industry also moves from an on-premise model to a software as a service (SaaS) model. One benefit of cloud-based hosting of biometric identity services is that both software and the underlying hardware can be easily upgraded without having to go to a site, deploying a brand new set of hardware, transferring the data from one set of hardware to the other, and hauling away the old hardware. Instead, all of those activities take place at Amazon, Microsoft, or other data centers with little or no on-premise fuss.

(And, as an added benefit, it’s easier for biometric vendors to keep their current customers because obsolescence becomes less of an issue.)

Is your biometric identity company ready to sell SaaS solutions?

But perhaps your company is just beginning to navigate from on-premise to SaaS. I’ve been through that myself, and can contract with you to provide advice and content. I can wear my biometric content marketing expert hat, or my biometric proposal writing expert hat as needed.

The “T” stands for technology. Or something. By Elred at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Moe_Epsilon., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3812206

Obviously this involves more than just saying “we’re cloud-ready.” Customers don’t care if you’re cloud-ready. Customers only care about the benefits that being cloud-ready provides. And I can help communicate those benefits.

If I can help you communicate the benefits of a cloud-ready biometric identity system, contact me (email, phone message, online form, appointment for a content needs assessment, even snail mail).