The Amazon One palm-scanning biometric ID system will roll out initially as an option for customers when they check in to two Amazon Go convenience stores in Seattle. (Amazon Photo)

Amazon has developed a new biometric ID system that works by scanning the palms of participating customers, planning to ultimately let people make in-store payments, gain access to office buildings, and move quickly through stadium turnstiles by holding out a hand.

The system, called “Amazon One,” comes with numerous safeguards designed to protect user data. Even so, Amazon’s use of biometrics in stores and other commercial settings promises to attract scrutiny at a time of heightened awareness of digital security and privacy, testing the limits of customer trust in the company.

Amazon One is set to debut Tuesday at two Amazon Go convenience stores near the company’s Seattle headquarters, giving customers an alternative to the regular process of checking into the automated retail stores, which normally involves using a QR code in an app.

Beyond that, the company says it’s already in talks with other retailers about using Amazon One (similar to its approach with its Amazon Go technology) and it envisions many different settings and applications for the technology.

“We designed the service to be applicable for a variety of use cases,” said Dilip Kumar, Amazon’s vice president of physical retail and technology, discussing Amazon One in an interview with GeekWire this week.

Biometric identification has been rising in popularity as an alternative to passwords and other forms of authentication, in everything from PC operating systems to airport security. Companies including Fujitsu and AEON Credit Service have also tested palm-scanning technologies for retail payment and checkout.

The Amazon One palm-scanning device. (Amazon Photo)

But Amazon’s growing retail footprint could take adoption of biometrics to a new level. The company says the goal of its system is to increase convenience and remove friction for customers. In the era of COVID-19, the system offers the added benefit of being contactless, with the ability to detect the unique characteristics of a palm when held in the air over the scanning device.

“It’s a fast, convenient, contactless way for people to use their palm to make daily activities like being at a store, presenting a loyalty card, entering a stadium, or any daily activities, like even badging into work, very effortless,” Kumar said.

The stakes are higher with privacy and security for biometrics, given the permanence of a person’s physical characteristics, vs. the relative ease of changing a password, for example.

Amazon One addresses that risk by taking a series of precautions. The company says the system uses a proprietary algorithms to create a unique “palm signature” that purposefully isn’t compatible with other biometric systems. The system analyzes multiple aspects of a person’s palm, the company says, selecting “the most distinct identifiers” to create the palm signature. Amazon says palm signatures are encrypted and stored behind multiple layers of security in the cloud, not stored in the Amazon One scanning devices.

In addition, consumers who enroll in the program will be able to delete their biometric data from the cloud at any time, the company says. Customers have the option of using their Amazon accounts with Amazon One, but it’s not required. It also works with just a credit card and mobile phone number. However, connecting Amazon One to an Amazon account gives customers the ability to manage their information and see their usage history.

Kumar said separate databases of palm signatures would be kept for any third-party implementations of the Amazon One technology.

Privacy was a key factor in Amazon’s choice to use the palm for its biometric ID system, Kumar said. “For example, it’s impossible for you or me to discern the identity of the person by looking at images of the palm,” he said. “So the palm is considered to be a very private biometric. That was a very important criteria.”

In addition, he said, the company decided to choose an “active” biometric that requires the customer to make an intentional gesture of holding their palm over the device. “That intentional gesture puts the customer in control,” he said. “They get to choose when they use it, where they use it and how they use their biometric. So that was a super important consideration for us.”

Amazon use of biometrics has stirred controversy in the past. The company’s cloud division, Amazon Web Services, said in June that it would halt use of its facial recognition technology by police for one year, amid a growing outcry over police violence and discrimination against Black Americans. Studies by the ACLU and MIT have shown that facial recognition software misidentifies women and people of color more frequently than it does white men, leading to concerns that the technology will disproportionately impact communities of color.

The voluntary use of palm scanning technology by customers isn’t likely to give rise to the same concerns as police use of facial recognition in surveillance.

But what happens, we asked, if law enforcement seeks access to the Amazon One database of palm scans to identify a suspect in a crime, if a surveillance camera captures an image of a person’s palm? The company said in response that the system “uses a proprietary combination of palm imagery created by the Amazon One device to recognize customers using the service,” and “is not interoperable with data provided by other sources.”

Usage of the system will be optional, not mandatory, for customers in the initial implementation at two Amazon Go convenience stores in Seattle, at 7th Avenue and Blanchard Street, and 300 Boren Ave. N. Customers sign up in those stores by inserting a credit card into an Amazon One device, then placing their palm over the device and following the prompts. They can register one or both palms. Amazon says the process takes less than a minute.

Once registered, a demonstration video provided by Amazon showed the system providing almost instantaneous access to the store using the palm-scanning technology.

Customers who don’t opt to use Amazon One can stick to the standard method of scanning a QR code in the Amazon Go app to gain entry.

In many ways, Amazon Go is an appropriate setting for the first Amazon One implementation. The stores already push the boundaries of privacy in the name of convenience, using cameras and sensors to track shoppers as they move through the store and pick up items, automatically charging their accounts when they leave, eliminating the need for checkout lines.

News of Amazon’s palm-scanning system was reported in January by the Wall Street Journal, but the company hadn’t previously confirmed its existence.

The New York Post reported last year that Amazon was testing a palm-scanning system for Whole Foods Market, the Amazon-owned grocery chain. The company declined to say this week if the system is coming to Whole Foods.

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