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.

Franchisees and BIPA

In other contexts, I have written about the relationship between franchisors and franchisees, which in some respects is similar to the way gig drivers work “with” (not “for”) Uber, Lyft, and the like. In many cases, the products that are advertised by a particular company are not made by that company, but by a franchisee of that company who is entirely separate from the parent company, but who is responsible for doing things the way the parent company wants them done. If you’re a franchisee, you CAN’T…um…”have it your way.”

This Whopper probably wasn’t made by Burger King itself, but by a franchisee of Burger King. By Tokfo – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37367904

Speaking of which, here is an example of an article that confuses franchisor and franchisee. The Buzzfeed article, in typical Buzzfeed style, is entitled “This Is What Happened After A Bunch Of Employees At A Burger King Quit.” (Because of malfunctioning air conditioning, a number of employees put in their two weeks’ notice, leaving a “We All Quit” sign as they left.) You have to read ANOTHER article (from NBC) to find this little statement:

“Our franchisee is looking into this situation to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future,” a Burger King spokesperson said.

Yes, the employees’…um…beef wasn’t with Burger King itself (or its Brazilian/Canadian/American parent Restaurant Brands International), but with whoever manages the local franchise.

Well, now this world of franchisors and franchisees has entered the biometric world, according to a post in Greensfelder, a self-described “franchising & distribution law blog.”

Greensfelder’s post starts by explaining to its readers what BIPA is (something you already know if you read MY blog) and how franchisees are affected.

Plaintiffs are suing both franchisors and franchisees. Franchisors are being sued for collecting the information themselves for their own employees and also for the actions of their franchisees on theories of joint and several liability, vicarious liability, agency and alter ego. A recently filed case alleges that a franchisor mandates and controls virtually every aspect of its franchise locations, including the use of certain equipment that collects biometric information to track employees’ time and attendance and to monitor cash register systems for fraud.

This benefits the lawyers, who get to collect double the damages by claiming that both the franchisor and the franchisee are separately liable.

Greensfelder’s takeaway for franchisors:

Franchisors should be careful about mandating franchisee use of biometric procedures and devices without first checking applicable law and also making sure that their own policies and procedures are in compliance with those laws.

I’m not sure who is providing takeaways for franchisees.

Other than the usual advice to read the franchise agreement very, very carefully.

Will the Kami Doorbell Camera sell in Illinois?

There was a recent press release that I missed until Biometric Update started talking about it two days later. The January 19 press release from Kami was entitled “Kami Releases Smart Video Doorbell With Facial Recognition Capabilities.” The subhead announced, “The device also offers user privacy controls.”

And while reading that Kami press release, I noticed a potential issue that wasn’t fully addressed in the press release, or (so far) in the media coverage of the press release. That issue relates to that four-letter word “BIPA.”

This post explains what BIPA is and why it’s important.

  • But it starts by looking at smart video doorbells.
  • Next, it looks at this particular press release about a smart video doorbell.
  • Then we’ll look at a competitor’s smart video doorbell, and a particular decision that the competitor made because of BIPA.
  • Only then will we dive into BIPA.
  • Finally, we’ll circle back to Kami, and how it may be affected by BIPA. (Caution: I’m not a lawyer.)

What is a smart video doorbell?

Many of us can figure out what a smart video doorbell would do, since Kami isn’t the first company to offer such a product. (I’ll talk about another company in a little bit.)

The basic concept is that the owner of the video doorbell (whom I’ll refer to as the “user,” to be consistent with Kami’s terminology) manages a small database of faces that could be recognized by the video doorbell. For example, if I owned such a device, I would definitely want to enroll my face and the face of my wife, and I would probably want to enroll the faces of other relatives and close friends. Doing this would create an allowlist of people who are known to the smart video doorbell system.

However, because technology itself is neutral, I need to point out two things about a standard smart video doorbell implementation:

  • Depending upon the design, you can enroll a person into the system without the person knowing it. If the user of the system controls the enrollment, then the user has complete control over the people that are enrolled into the system. All I need is a picture of the person, and I can use that picture to enroll the person into my smart video doorbell. I can grab a picture that I took from New Year’s Eve, or I could even grab a picture from the Internet. After all, if President Joe Biden walked up to my front door, I’d definitely want to know about it. Now there are technological solutions to this; for example, liveness detection could be used to ensure that the person who is enrolling in the system is a live person and not a picture. But I’m not aware of any system that requires liveness detection for this particular use case.
  • You can enroll a person into the system for ANY reason. Usually consumer smart video doorbells are presented as a way to let you know when friends and family come to the door. But the technology has no way of detecting whether you are actually enrolling a “friend.” Perhaps you want to know when your ex-girlfriend comes to the door. Or perhaps you have a really good picture of the guy who’s been breaking into homes in your neighborhood. Now enterprise and government systems account for this by supporting separate allowlists and blocklists, but frankly you can put anyone on to any list for any reason.

So with that introduction, let’s see what Kami is offering, and why it’s different.

The Kami Doorbell Camera

Let’s return to the Kami press release. It, as well as the description of the item in Kami’s online store, parallels a lot of the features that you can find in any smart video doorbell.

Know exactly who’s at your door. Save the faces of friends and family in your Kami or YI Home App, allowing you to get notified if the person outside your front door is a familiar face or a stranger.

And it has other features, such as an IP-65 rating stating that the camera will continue to work outdoors in challenging weather conditions.

However, Yamin Durrani, Kami’s CEO, emphasized a particular point in the press release:

“The Kami Doorbell Camera was inspired by a greater need for safety and peace of mind as people spend more time at home and consumers’ increasing desire to reside in smart homes,” said Yamin Durrani, CEO of Kami. “However, we noticed one gaping hole in the smart doorbell market — it was lacking an extremely advanced security solution that also puts the user in complete control of their privacy. In designing our video doorbell camera we considered all the ways people live in their homes to elegantly combine accelerated intelligence with a level of customization and privacy that is unmatched in today’s market. The result is a solution that provides comfort, safety and peace of mind.”

Privacy for the user(s) makes sense, because you don’t want someone hacking into the system and stealing the pictures and other stored information. As described, Kami lets the user(s) control their own data, and the system has presumably been designed from the ground up to support this.

But Kami isn’t the only product out there.

One of Kami’s competitors has an interesting footnote in its product description

There’s this company called Google. You may have heard of it. And Google offers a product called Nest Aware. This product is a subscription service that works with Nest cameras and provides various types of alerts for activities within the range of the cameras.

And Nest even has a feature that sounds, um, familiar to Kami users. Nest refers to the feature as “familiar face detection.”

Nest speakers and displays listen for unusual sounds. Nest cameras can spot a familiar face.4 And they all send intelligent alerts that matter.

So it sounds like Nest Aware has the same type of “allowlist” feature that allows the Nest Aware user to enroll friends and family (or whoever) into the system, so that they can be automatically recognized and so you can receive relevant information.

Hmm…did you note that there is a footnote next to the mention of “familiar face”? Let’s see what that footnote says.

4. Familiar face alerts not available on Nest Cams used in Illinois.

To the average consumer, that footnote probably looks a little odd. Why would this feature not be available in Illinois, but available in all the other states?

Or perhaps the average consumer may recall another Google app from three years ago, the Google Art & Culture app. That app became all the rage when it introduced a feature that let you compare your face to the faces on famous works of art. Well, it let you perform that comparison…unless you lived in Illinois or Texas.

So what’s the big deal about Illinois?

Those of us who are active in the facial recognition industry, or people who are active in the privacy industry, are well aware of the Illinois Biometric Information and Privacy Act, or BIPA. This Act, which was passed in 2008, provides Illinois residents control over the use of their biometric data. And if a company violates that control, the resident is permitted to sue the offending company. And class action lawsuits are allowed, thus increasing the possible damages to the offending company.

And there are plenty of lawyers that are willing to help residents exercise their rights under BIPA.

One early example of a BIPA lawsuit was filed against L.A. Tan. This firm offered memberships, and rather than requiring the member to present a membership card, the member simply placed his or her fingerprint onto a scanner to verify membership. But under BIPA, that could be a problem:

The plaintiffs in the L.A. Tan case alleged that the company, which used customers’ fingerprint scans in lieu of key fobs for tanning membership ID purposes, violated the BIPA by failing to obtain the customers’ written consent to use the fingerprint data and by not disclosing to customers the company’s plans for storing the data or destroying it in the event a tanning customer terminated her salon membership or a franchise closed. The plaintiffs did not claim L.A. Tan illegally sold or lost customers’ fingerprint data, just that it did not handle the data as carefully as the BIPA requires.

L.A. Tan ended up settling the case for over a million dollars, but Illinois Policy wondered:

This outcome is reassuring for anyone concerned about the handling of private information like facial-recognition data and fingerprints, but it also could signal a flood of similar lawsuits to come.

And there certainly was a flood of lawsuits. I was working in strategic marketing at the time, and I would duly note the second lawsuit filed under BIPA, and then the third lawsuit, and the fourth…Eventually I stopped counting.

As of June 2019, 324 such lawsuits had been filed in total, including 161 in the first six months of 2019 alone. And some big names have been sued under BIPA.

Facebook settled for $650 million.

Google was sued in October 2019 over Google Photos, again in February 2020 over Google Photos, again in April 2020 over its G Suite for Education, again in July 2020 over its use of IBM’s Diversity in Faces algorithm, and probably several other times besides.

So you can understand why Google is a little reluctant to sell Nest Aware’s familiar face detection feature in Illinois.

So where does that leave Kami?

Here’s where the problem may lie. Based upon the other lawsuits, it appears that lawyers are alleging that before an Illinois resident’s biometric features are stored in a database, the person has to give consent for the biometric to be stored, and the person has to be informed of his or her rights under BIPA.

So such explicit permission has to be given for every biometric database physically within the state of Illinois?

Yes…and then some. Remember that Facebook and Google’s databases aren’t necessarily physically located within the state of Illinois, but those companies have been sued under BIPA. I’m not a lawyer, but conceivably an Illinois resident could sue a Swiss company, with its databases in Switzerland, for violating BIPA.

Now when someone sets up a Kami system, does the Kami user ensure that every Illinois resident has received the proper BIPA notices? And if the Kami user doesn’t do that, is Kami legally liable?

For all I know, the Kami enrollment feature may include explicit BIPA questions, such as “Is the person in this picture a resident of Illinois?” Then again, it may not.

Again, I’m not a lawyer, but it’s interesting to note that Google, who does have access to a bunch of lawyers, decided to dodge the issue by not selling familiar face detection to Illinois residents.

Which doesn’t answer the question of an Iowa Nest Aware familiar face detection user who enrolls an Illinois resident…