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U.S. senators question Amazon about its use of palm-reading biometric data

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Entering an Amazon Go store in Seattle by scanning a palm. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

New Amazon CEO Andy Jassy is facing questions about how the company plans to use the data it gathers from its newly installed palm-reading scanners in some of the company’s retail outlets.

A group of three U.S. senators — Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), and Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) — sent a letter to Jassy asking a series of questions about its new Amazon One program which encourages people to make contactless payments via hand scans in its brick-and-mortar stores, such as Whole Foods.

Specifically, the senators expressed concerns about Amazon’s own history with its user data.

“Amazon’s expansion of biometric data collection through Amazon One raises serious questions about Amazon’s plans for this data and its respect for user privacy, including about how Amazon may use the data for advertising and tracking purposes,” the senators wrote in the letter dated August 12. “Our concerns about user privacy are heightened by evidence that Amazon shared voice data with third-party contractors and allegations that Amazon has violated biometric privacy laws.”

In a blog post published when it introduced the technology, an Amazon official noted that the company understands data privacy concerns but that there is nothing to worry about with the company’s use of this technology.

“We take data security and privacy seriously, and any sensitive data is treated in accordance with our long-standing policies. With this in mind, we designed Amazon One to be highly secure,” wrote Dilip Kumar, vice president of Physical Retail & Technology for Amazon, in a Sept. 29 post on the company’s blog. “For example, the Amazon One device is protected by multiple security controls and palm images are never stored on the Amazon One device.”

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The group of three senators, however, don’t appear convinced by Kumar’s disclaimer.

“In contrast with biometric systems like Apple’s Face ID and Touch ID or Samsung Pass, which store biometric information on a user’s device, Amazon One reportedly uploads biometric information to the cloud, raising unique security risks,” they wrote in the letter.

Currently, Amazon is offering $10 in promotional credits to those who enroll their bank accounts in the program and link them to their Amazon accounts.

The letter asks a series of questions including:

  • 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?
  • 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?
  • How many users have signed up for Amazon One?

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment and instead referenced the previously published blog post.

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