Palm payments: how do they work and why are they controversial?

Back in October 2020, Amazon announced new technology for its Amazon Go stores – the Amazon One Scanner. WIth this technology in place in store, shoppers would now be able to pay for their purchases simply by scanning their palm at the checkout. While these scanners are not a new type of technology, a huge company like Amazon seeing their potential and investing heavily in their use is likely to accelerate their adoption elsewhere. In 2021, for example, Amazon expanded the use of the technology into its subsidiary, Whole Foods

How can your palm be used for payment?

To use the palm scanners as a method of payment, customers will need to give Amazon their credit or debit information to link to their palm print – a form of biometric technology. This palm print is created by capturing the person’s vein patterns and surface details like fine lines and ridges. Together, these patterns are unique to each finger and each user. 

The vein scanning is usually done using an infrared camera that penetrates the surface layers of the skin, identifying the characteristics of the palm and connecting it with the payment information stored on the system. Customers then need to hold their hands above the scanner for about a second and a half to make a payment at the checkout. 

What are the advantages of paying using your palm?

As with other methods of biometric payments, the key advantages of palm payments are centered around their difficulty to forge. This is particularly true with palm payments as the veins are hidden underneath a person’s skin’s surface, replicating the configuration is almost impossible

One other advantage is that the technology is completely contactless and offers increased convenience for users by reducing queuing times. This is unlike fingerprint scanners, for example, where your finger needs to be placed against a scanner to be read correctly. Being able to hold your palm a few inches away from the scanner will offer increased comfort to some users, especially as the effects of COVID-19 are still very much prevalent in the minds of many. However, in this respect, it is not drastically different from using tap-to-pay on your credit card. 

Amazon’s main reason for picking palm prints compared to other forms of biometric identifiers is that palm prints also offer increased privacy. You can’t determine a person’s identity simply by looking at a picture of their palm in the same way you can with facial recognition or an iris scan. 

What are the security risks with palm payments?

The way your palm data is stored is the main reason why some privacy advocates are strongly against making palm payments more commonplace. Amazon, for example, has stated that it keeps the encrypted palm data in the cloud. This is unlike the way other companies keep biometric data.

Apple, for instance, allows its customers to use Face ID to make payments, however, the biometric data is kept on the device and is therefore not shared with Apple or any other company. The cloud on the other hand carries with it various risks, potentially exposing it to hackers and making it easier for third parties to access. 

By linking your palm print to your Amazon account, Amazon may also be able to use your shopping history to target advertisements at you. 

Ultimately, while biometrics are great for high stakes scenarios like border control; the idea should be met with caution and skepticism for shopping, especially when equally convenient alternatives already exist. After all, you can’t change your biometric data if it was ever hacked. 
Would you feel comfortable paying for goods and services with your palm? Let us know in the comments section. And, if you have any questions or other technology queries, please tweet us at @techtroublesho1.

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