Whole Foods Wants Your Handprints. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Whole Foods Wants Your Handprints. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

Jeff Bezos is one step closer to transforming your mortal bag of bones into a lean, mean, money-dispensing machine. The body part in question: Your hands. Amazon is rolling out its palm-scanning technology at more than 65 Whole Foods grocery stores in California over the coming weeks. The biometric tech, called Amazon One, was patented in 2019, and this is the company’s biggest launch yet. It’s pretty much as dystopian as it sounds.

Customers can activate their palms by registering a handprint via an Amazon One kiosk or at checkout in participating stores. Along with a skin scan, you’ll need to offer a bank card, provide your phone number, and say “yes Jeff” to Amazon’s terms and conditions. Once set up, you can lug all the organic kale and age-defying collagen powder you like to checkout. You’ll hover a palm over the scanning device to pay—just as you would place a hand on the bible—then you’re good to go.

The idea builds on Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology, which uses cameras and sensors to track what shoppers in select Whole Foods locations in Washington, D.C. and California are buying and then charge them for it when they waltz out the front door. The palm scanners work by matching unique wrinkles and veins visible on your hands to an image Amazon has stored in the cloud. Both systems are designed to make it quicker and easier for customers to pay for their groceries—perhaps an unsurprising strategy from a company for which extreme convenience (and surveillance; Alexa, can you stop invading my privacy?) seems to equal loyalty.

If this whole pay-with-a-flick-of-your-palm thing seems like a grossly over-engineered solution for a carton or two of Oatly, that’s because it is. At Whole Foods, Amazon One seems comparable to using Apple Pay. But Jeff, of course, has bigger plans: to sell the tech to third parties and achieve total world domination in his lifetime. There’s a version of reality out there where we can swipe our palms to enter stadiums, live shows, private office buildings, and the subway—all courtesy of Amazon One.

These technologies are already everywhere in our lives. We offer a thumbprint to complete a mobile purchase and a facial scan to log in to an iPhone. And in some situations, like verifying you are who you say you are at a border security checkpoint, this might make sense. But these systems can also be very risky for the people whose data is being collected and stored (and sometimes sold).

Biometrics use the uniqueness of our physical bodies to authenticate us, says Cade Diehm, founder of the New Design Congress, an independent digital security and infrastructure research organisation based in Europe and Australia. With a phone, where any sample data is stored on the device itself, that might be fairly innocuous. But in the case of Amazon One, where images are cloud-based, the consequences of a data breach could be particularly severe. “Storing biometric data in the cloud is a disaster, despite the assurances of any company,” says Diehm.


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