Will retailers give Amazon’s latest brick-and-mortar initiative a literal hand? It’s a strange question born out of an even stranger premise from the e-tailer, which hopes to seed its new palm recognition technology at physical retail stores.
On Tuesday, Amazon unveiled Amazon One, a biometric checkout device that reads people’s palm prints to authorize payments, enter physical spaces or access transit and other scenarios. It’s a similar premise to fingerprint readers on smartphones, except the device is larger, stationary and installed at the point of sale or entrance.
According to Dilip Kumar, Amazon’s vice president in charge of physical retail, one area the company has “spent time innovating is the customer shopping experience in stores,” he wrote in the company’s blog.
The goal, according to Kumar, is to take the friction out of Amazon’s cashier-less stores. Currently Amazon Go requires the download of a dedicated app and a smartphone to gain entry. With Amazon One, people just put their hand over a terminal to enter and, just like before, the system automatically charges the items to their payment card as they leave, no cashier needed.
Amazon’s contactless grocery stores will start using the technology at entryways in two Seattle locations, before expanding across the whole chain. The tech may even expand to Whole Foods, as the company expects “to add Amazon One as an option in additional Amazon stores in the coming months.”
Either way, it’s clear that Amazon wants to see the terminals spread out to other stores and businesses, including third-party retailers, where the devices could sit at checkouts to facilitate purchases. Amazon also eyes other use cases, including loyalty cards, entrance to places like stadiums or as an alternative to showing work badges to enter an office.
The convenience factor helps. There’s no Prime subscription or advance preparation required, since customers can sign up at a terminal, scan a palm and register their credit or other cards. From then on, they can authorize purchases or entry by simply holding a hand in the air over the device.
Fans of epic fantasy films may love the mystical feel of stretching out a hand to command the technology, but others unnerved by privacy concerns or the prospect of malicious hacks could find the scenario unsettling.
The thorny issue with biometric data is that, unlike a credit card, one cannot simply replace a fingerprint, face or palm print if it’s compromised. That’s why deep security goes into any biometrically based system.
Amazon said that it gave a lot of thought to security, even down to the choice of using palm recognition. It’s considered more private than some alternatives, the company said, because one can’t fake it by looking at an image of it. It’s contactless, which is a safety measure of another kind in the coronavirus era, and it requires the user to “make an intentional gesture.” In other words, it’s harder to trigger accidentally.
As for transmission, Kumar explained that the system uses multiple security controls and cast the fact that its machines don’t house the palm images as being more secure. That’s an inherently different approach than biometric paradigms used by smartphone makers. On iPhones, for instance, fingerprint and facial recognition data sits roped off in highly secured areas of the device, and it’s never transmitted electronically to Apple.
Amazon One terminals work the opposite way, eschewing local storage and sending palm images to Amazon servers. The data is encrypted and transmitted to a custom-built, locked-down part of Amazon’s cloud. From there, the images are used to create the unique palm signatures. Presumably for extra peace of mind, there’s a privacy feature that allows people to delete their biometrics from the servers using an online tool or an Amazon One device.
The company doesn’t store purchase details, only basic information like locations visited. There are no plans at this time to use transaction data from retailers for other purposes, like advertising.
But trust issues could go beyond the tech, especially for retailers. They may view Amazon One as an effort by a massive empire that already dominates online retail to infiltrate merchants’ brick-and-mortar stores as well.
Of course, the company doesn’t see it that way. But it may take more than just a wave of the hand to convince other businesses and stores of that.